The future of coal remains bright, except for one “dark” shadow on the horizon, according to Robert Finkelman.
The United States has enough coal to last at least another half-century, and technology tidily handles almost all of the many environmental and safety concerns, Finkelman said.
The one resource in short supply is on the human side, said Finkelman, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and an acknowledged expert in the field.
“The coal science community still has a very important role to play,” he said. “Don’t concede the issues to engineers, politicians and others.”
“There is no substantial flow of students into this area,” he said.
In his upcoming address at the AAPG Energy Minerals Division luncheon in San Antonio, Finkelman will pose the question: “Will Coal Burn Brightly in the Future?”
Some of his talk will draw on the conclusions of a National Research Council committee report on the subject. Finkelman served on the committee, whose members spent over a year interviewing experts, visiting sites and reviewing data to determine whether the United States is prepared to meet the demands of energy from coal until 2030.
“We looked at every facet ... from reserves through electrical transmission,” he said.
“There is no question we have the resources and infrastructure in place, probably to serve for the next 50 years, maybe the next 100 years,” he said. “After that, the crystal ball gets a little cloudy.”
The Big Gorilla
A long list of issues arises in any discussion of coal’s future – carbon dioxide, mercury, ozone, arsenic, sulfur, acid rain, particulates, acid mine drainage, black lung, nitrogen, radiation, byproduct disposal, resource availability and decreasing quality.
The NRC committee “acknowledged that carbon dioxide sequestration ... is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he said. “(But) the consequences may be lower than we thought.”
As for other environmental and safety challenges, Finkelman believes “the technology is in place, or will be shortly” to handle them.
“The exception is carbon dioxide,” he continued. “We understand issues of the other concerns and can address them.”
The idea of creating a separate government agency to consolidate coal research and regulatory functions “drew a strong, negative response from us,” Finkelman said, “but we agreed that we do need more cooperation among existing agencies.”
The panel also recommended additional funding for health and safety issues and more study to characterize coal reserves.
“We know where it is, but less about its composition,” he said. “This would help the industry minimize environmental impacts and use coal more efficiently.”
Although USGS studies indicate coal composition around the world is “very uniform,” pollution is a bigger problem in developing nations – and doesn’t stay within national borders.
“Some of what is spewing out in China is coming over to the United States and other countries,” he said. “Would it behoove us to help improve the capabilities of other countries (to reduce pollution) rather than spend our money to squeeze out every last atom of mercury from our coal?”
A Lack of Attention?
In looking at future energy sources, Finkelman said that coal “is not getting the attention it deserves.
“We use coal to produce 50 percent of our electricity ... and demand is increasing,” he said.
Compared to fuels like natural gas, “If you want the least expensive electricity then coal is the option.
“Coal-fired plants produce minor emissions, but require expensive capital investments,” he said.
Gas is cleaner, but the question of reserves arises: How much natural gas do we have?
“As pressure for alternative fuels increases, there is some debate whether they are really more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels,” Finkelman said. “Alternative fuels will not fill the gap.”
Currently, 95 percent of mined coal is pulverized to make electricity, he said.
“We need to look more at gasifying and liquefying” coal for conversion to fuels and chemicals, he suggested.
Finkelman also said byproducts, like fly ash, might be used more effectively, perhaps including metals extraction, which would “in return … lower costs of production,” he said.
Security and the Future
And then there’s the issue of energy security, of which Finkelman commented, “The only resource completely under our control is coal.”
While energy independence is not realistic, “taking over other countries for their oil is clearly not an option,” he said. “And we have to acknowledge that at least some of the money sent to those countries ends up in the coffers of people who would like to do us harm.
“We will always have to import fuel, but we can constrain that,” he said.
Returning to the issue of training future coal scientists, Finkelman said: “People like me, who have spent their lives in this field, are soon to be put out to pasture. There’s no one to pass the torch to.
“AAPG and the EMD need to be cognizant of this issue and adopt policies to encourage students to get involved and to maintain our existing centers of excellence,” he said.
“The most important question for the next 25 years is not where is the coal, but where are the people to mine it,” he said.
As other fuel costs rise and availability becomes more complicated, is America poised for a return of King Coal?
“Some would say it never relinquished its crown,” he said.