The Muddled Distinction between Environment and Profit

Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so too, is value. Each of us understands our dependency on nature as the supplier of the proper environmental conditions to enable the availability of all of the raw materials needed for our survival as a species. Like children to parents, we are even more dependent on nature for our nurturing. We may not often think about the hierarchy of this relationship but we should.

Like the tension that exists between the right of passage of teenagers and controlling will of parents in this development cycle, there seems to be a constant tension between the unrealistic demands that humans place on nature. Nature has become an overused pawn in an ever-worsening environmental game. I have written numerous posts on the demands placed on the environment by our consumptive behaviors.

A recent article that appeared in the Huffington Post – Coal Exports Contradict Obama’s Climate Pledge, Critics Say, highlights yet another example of our mentality to try to balance the impact on environment with the reality of economics. Many countries are blessed (or cursed) with an ample supply of coal. For centuries, coal has been used for fuel. There are several types of coal. The primary distinction is carbon content which allows some coal to burn hotter than other coals. From the Powder River Coal Company:

“There are many types of coal, including anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. Anthracite has the highest carbon content. The carbon content is anywhere between 86 and 98 percent. Anthracite produces nearly 15,000 Btu’s per pound (a Btu, or British Thermal Unit, is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit). This type of coal is what you might burn in your home. There are 7.3 billion tons of anthracite reserves in the United States, mainly in Pennsylvania.

Bituminous coal is the most plentiful type of coal in the United States. It is mainly found in the eastern and middle parts of the North American continent. Bituminous coal is primarily used to generate electricity and to make coke for the steel industry. Bituminous coal has a carbon content of 45 to 86 percent and a heat value of 10,500 to 15,500 Btu’s per pound. Subbituminous coal ranks just below bituminous coal with 35 to 45 percent carbon content. The heat value of subbituminous coal is between 8,300 and 13,000 Btu’s per pound. This coal is found in the western states and Alaska. It is a clean burning coal. Power River Coal Company produces subbituminous coal.

Lignite has the lowest carbon content of coal, somewhere between 25 and 35 percent. The heat value of lignite ranges between 4,000 and 8,300 Btu’s per pound. Sometimes lignite is known as brown coal because of its brown color. Lignite is also used to generate electricity. “

Coincidentally, it is the Powder River Basin which is at the heart of the latest lobbying effort to encourage coal exports. The heart of the jockeying between pro and con export positions is summed up in this statement by Thomas M. Power, research professor and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montana in Missoula:

“If we were serious about doing something about global warming, the federal government certainly wouldn’t be talking about controlling the burning of coal in the U.S. on the one hand while encouraging the export of coal to the rest of the world to be burned.”

Exports are good for the economy. Exports produce domestic employment – something that is sorely needed by virtually every country that actively participates in the global economy. As our global population continues to expand, so do our energy consumption demands. Coal is an abundant and cheap source of fuel. Coal is also a major contributor to atmospheric pollution.

From the website for the Union of Concerned Scientists, this overview of resulting pollutants from burning coal.

“Coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the primary cause of global warming. In 2011, utility coal plants in the United States emitted a total of 1.7 billion tons of CO21.  A typical coal plant generates 3.5 million tons of CO2 per year2. Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution.”

After you read the article on Coal Exports, share your thoughts about whether you agree or disagree with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn when he testified that:

“”Unless we can stop these coal terminals from being built and keep our coal in the ground where it belongs, Washington state coal exports will be responsible for hastening the advance of climate change here at home and around the world.”


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