Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 March 2012

Coal: Faust’s Fate Come to Life

[For an update on relevant recent developments, click here.]

Most educated Westerners know the tale of Faust. He was an aging, infirm scholar who regretted a life spent in barren intellectual pursuits. When he bewailed his impending death, Satan appeared in human form and made him an offer. Sell me your immortal soul, Satan bargained, and I will restore your youth and give you the love of your desire.

Faust agreed, and Satan kept part of his bargain. He gave Faust the appearance and strength of youth and made the young lady Faust desired love him.

But Faust soon realized that his new “youth” was just an illusion. He still had the mind and conscience of an old man. He regretted deceiving the young lady, whose innocence and purity had evoked in him genuine love. In the end, Faust despaired, repented and gave his soul up to Satan without achieving the object of his desire.

The Devil’s deal was a “Faustian bargain.” Today that term connotes any deal with obvious (and unrealistic) immediate attractions but disastrous long-term consequences.

And so it is with coal. The fuel’s abundance creates a strong temptation toward profligate use. China, Germany, and our own nation have enough coal in the ground to power our respective societies for a century or more. But the consequences of doing that would be selling the purity of our atmosphere and the health of ourselves and our planet to Satan, with disaster even in the medium term.

When you travel by aircraft, at an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000 feet, you are flying at the upper limits of the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why you need an oxygen mask to survive if the cabin pressurization fails. Your altitude is eight or fewer miles; the Earth’s radius is over 4,000 miles. Although you are flying above the part of the atmosphere that supports life, you are only one five-hundredth of a radius above the Earth’s surface.

So our life-giving atmosphere is thinner than a single sheet of paper placed on the surface of an average living-room globe. It is a tiny layer of oxygen, nitrogen and other gases, held in place by the force of gravity. Yet it supports all life on Earth, including ours. Blow it away, and every living thing (including, eventually, even oxygen-breathing deep-sea creatures) would perish.

So why would we want to fill this thin, fragile, and indescribably precious biological reserve with carbon dioxide (which we exhale but cannot breathe), sulfur dioxide (which forms sulfuric acid—acid rain—when combined with water, including in our lungs), mercury pollution (which poisons our lakes, seas and fish), and particulate smog that darkens our cities and causes epidemics of asthma and other respiratory diseases? It’s a puzzlement.

Even birds, with their tiny brains, know enough not to foul their nests. But we human persist in fouling our paper-thin atmosphere, which supports all life on Earth. We do it day after day, with pollutants that destroy our quality of life, impair our health, and ultimately will cook our planet and inundate our coastal lowlands.

It’s not as if we don’t have warning aplenty what coal can do. We now have serious reports by serious scientists who spend their whole lives studying these things. And we have historical records and stories galore of Dickensian England, with its sickening London “fogs.”

We now know that they weren’t “fogs” at all, but dense coal smogs from space heating and primitive industry. They miraculously disappeared in the twentieth century, when Londoners stopped heating their homes and businesses with coal.

As if other examples were needed, we now have Hong Kong. This once-lovely tropical financial center is now a modern version of Dickensian London, with its own version of London fogs. This time the coal pollution comes not from home heating (which the warm climate makes unnecessary) but from the massive coal-fired factories of South China’s industrial heartland in nearby Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta.

Some people (not scientists, but politicians and untrained reporters) appear to think this massive, regional pollution comes from buses, trucks and cars in the city itself. But this view belies historical memory, arithmetic and common sense. There is no way that mere buses and other vehicles in a city of Hong Kong’s small physical size could create the massive and sustained pollution of the city, Kowloon and the surrounding open sea, which miraculously disappears over Chinese New Year holidays when the regional factories shut down.

China has many other examples of our dark future if we, as a species, continue down this Faustian path. Economically, Shanghai, Beijing and other big Chinese cities are among our planet’s most dynamic places to live. Environmentally, they are among the very worst. On a bad day, people suffer headaches, asthma and difficulty breathing. Those old enough wistfully recall the fresh smell of spring or fall in their youth. Those too young to remember can only suffer the asthma of immature immune systems exposed to extraordinary environmental stress, and look forward with dread to a lifetime of more of the same.

Like the promise of Faust’s youth, the “promise” of coal is really an illusion. For despite its abundance, coal, too, will run out. And when it does it will leave us with a blasted, sooty, polluted planet, with an entirely different continental map and an entirely different climate. About a third of the plant and animal species that exist today will be gone, entirely extinguished by our own improvident hand. And generations of humans living in polluted cities will have no idea what it is to smell the freshness of a sunny spring day or the bracing clarity of a crisp fall evening, or to see the Milky Way at night.

The fate of Faust is an apt analogy, because a world powered by coal will resemble nothing so much as Hell.

It’s not as if we have to suffer that fate to preserve our civilization. We have abundant alternatives for energy, right now, today. We have the wind and sun, which produce no pollution at all and will never run out. We have nuclear power, which produces some radioactive waste but no air pollution, and which can be made much, much safer with a little imagination and capital investment. And we have natural gas, which produces no dangerous pollutants at all, and only half the greenhouse gases of burning coal. And as it turns out, all of these alternatives are cheaper than coal (1, 2 and 3), even in the short run, especially if you count coal’s gargantuan but hard-to-calculate external costs (1 and 2).

At this point in our history, our species faces only two problems that could seriously threaten our survival. One is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. That issue is still in doubt. But we appear to have developed a strong and growing international consensus that nuclear weapons are not for offensive use, just for defensive, passive non-use as deterrents. If that consensus holds, our species just might muddle through.

Perhaps because its effects are less dramatic than nuclear explosions and radioactive fallout, we so far have ignored the equally serious threat of coal. But our atmosphere is not getting any thicker or cleaner, our population any smaller, or our collective need for energy any less. Will we take the Faustian bargain or, foreseeing the consequences, avoid it like the Homo sapiens that we are supposed to be? That is the chief issue for energy policy today, and one of the two most important issues facing our human species.

One thing is both ironic and hopeful. Germany, which created the modern version of Faust’s legend, has already seen the light. By focusing massively on energy from the wind and sun, it is avoiding both the Faustian bargain of coal and the lesser but real risks of nuclear energy. In the process, it is perpetuating a manufacturing boom based on sound engineering and superb technical foresight. It would be a fine thing indeed if the nation that gave us the legend of Faust also showed us the solution: using our free will and human intelligence to reject the cheap temptation and take the better path.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post put the Earth’s radius as “over 8,000 miles.” That was error. The Earth’s diameter, not radius, is over 8,000 miles. I regret the error, which is corrected above, and which does not change the qualitative conclusions.

Update on the Future of Coal (3/31/12):

Given the timing of this post, readers may be wondering whether I’m some kind of insider or maybe clairvoyant.

Just three days after I published it, the Obama Administration announced a new environmental regulation for coal-fired power plants. The rule will probably keep us from building any more such plants. It may even cause some existing ones to be phased out prematurely.

No, I’m not clairvoyant. And I’m no insider, certainly not in Washington. I’m a (mostly) retired professor who’s never worked in Washington, but who still reads and thinks. And the ideas on this blog are completely my own, entirely independent of anyone else’s (except my wife’s).

It’s important for readers to know that. Everyone, including me, the President, and his environmental experts, all see the same writing on the wall.

So do the owners of and workers in the last remaining coal-fired power plant in the Seattle area. They recently agreed—without legislation, litigation or regulation—to close the plant down by 2025.

The new regulation implicitly tells why. It’s not law yet. It still has to go through a comment period, revisions, and then probably extended litigation.

But its gist is simple and fair. It doesn’t shut down or prohibit anything. It just requires coal power plants to reduce their carbon emissions to about the same level as natural-gas plants now produce. [See ¶3 under “Old King Coal”]

The coal barons know they can’t do that, at least not with anything like current technology. So they are screaming that the regulation will kill their industry.

Maybe it will. But whatever happened to so-called “clean coal”? Remember when those TV ads tried to make you think it was a real technology, not just an advertising slogan cooked up by coal’s PR hacks?

If there really were such a thing as “clean coal,” aka “carbon sequestration,” don’t you think the coal barons would be asking for federal subsidies to install it? Or at least the same loan guarantees that the new nuclear plants in the South are getting?

But they aren’t. The coal barons are leading a frontal assault on the proposed regulation because they know that “clean coal” is only a PR slogan and the subject of ongoing research. And even the research must be government-supported because it’s so iffy that no private investors will put money into it. My previous analysis explains why.

So no, I’m neither in the know nor telepathic. Nor is this a case of great minds thinking alike. It’s just common sense.

We’ve used this dirtiest of fossil fuels for far too long. We’re not just changing our climate in ways likely to devastate large numbers of our species, especially those living near low-lying coastlines. We’re also destroying the environment that we evolved in (or, if you prefer, that God gave us) with toxins and pollutants that can make us miserable and destroy our health.

So now everyone can see that the huge drop in natural-gas prices brought about by the fracking craze has given us a golden opportunity. We can dump this diabolical fuel and run our cars and power stations on natural gas while we build an infrastructure for solar, wind and safe nuclear energy. And that infrastructure will power us for hundreds of years, without poisoning our air, heating our atmosphere, or destroying our planet.

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  • At Mon Mar 26, 09:23:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Concise and well written Jay.

    In a good way you sound like the Lorax. We recently enjoyed the movie "Lorax" with our 9 year old son in which Mr. O’Hare, a Napoleonic tyrant, makes a killing selling bottled air (and weekly air deliveries to homes), "because any fool will buy anything packaged in a bottle". And because his factories had made their air non-breathable.

  • At Sun Apr 01, 12:45:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for the compliment.

    Yet I wouldn’t go so far as comparing the coal barons to the O’Hare you describe. (I’ve not seen the movie.) Unlike him, the coal barons do provide something of value—real electricity—whose value does not derive from their pollution.

    The coal barons haven’t yet stooped to trying to make a profit from their pollution itself. In fact their pollution might even benefit others, such as asthma doctors and people who build sea walls. (It’s an ill polluted wind that blows no good.)

    Coal would be a fine fuel if we could find some cheap way to throw the massive carbon, sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate pollution it produces into outer space.

    But we can’t. And the prospects of sequestering the effluent seem remote. So shouldn’t we be using power from sources that are less dangerous to us and our children, which we know work now?

    When you think about it that way, the question kinds of answers itself, doesn’t it? In these matters I find it often helps to take an engineer’s point of view and ignore all the ideology and name-calling.




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