Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

World’s Deadliest Fuel Made Safe and Clean?



Courtesy of USGS

Coal kills. When it's not horrific mining accidents like the one in Soma, Turkey, on May 13 that killed more than 300 miners, it's the 13,000 Americans who die early each year because of air pollution from burning the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Coal is a way of life, providing jobs and inexpensive energy wherever it is found, whether Turkey, Wyoming or Shanxi Province in China. There are an estimated 50,000 coal miners still working in the U.S. at more than 500 mines in 26 states. Globally, coal still provides the bulk of the world's energy and the burning black rock has been the fastest growing source of energy in the 21st century.


Courtesy of IEA

In other words, coal is both a bane and boon. So is there a way to make coal safer and cleaner?

No one has to die

The biggest danger in coal mining is an explosion, whether from a buildup of methane gas leaking out of the coal or ignition of coal dust itself. More than 10,000 coal miners in the U.S. died in such explosions between 1900 and 2011, the vast majority of coal mining fatalities. But with the appropriate safety precautions coal mining could be safe, even from explosive gas and dust.

The only problem is implementing such safety measures might cut down on the efficiency of getting coal out of the ground and into power plant boilers or steel mill furnaces. Part of the reason for the horrific death toll in the Soma disaster is that the accident occurred during a shift change, when more miners were inside the mine. A simple solution to lower the fatality rate is to assure that one shift's miners have exited safely before the next one goes in to work.

Other significant causes of miner deaths—crush by collapse as in the most recent casualties among West Virginia coal miners or crush by machinery—can be solved by technology, such as devices that allow heavy mining equipment to detect whether human miners are in its vicinity or not. Such proximity detection devices exist and are available, being implemented in mines in countries such as Australia and Canada. But, as long-time West Virginia reporter Ken Ward, Jr., notes on his blog Coal Tattoo, rules to require such devices in U.S. mines are languishing at the White House and among West Virginia officialdom. "Coal mining disasters are preventable," Ward wrote on May 15. "Why don't we put an end to coal-mining deaths and disasters?"

Another technique for averting disaster that the lost miners in Turkey also apparently lacked is so-called "self escape," a practice of having resources for escape positioned throughout the mine to help miners help themselves in the event of an explosion, collapse or other accident. It's not just technology like face masks that can render deadly air breathable or better communications devices, though, it's taking the time for drills—at least according to the National Academy of Sciences, which put out a report on how to improve such self-escape options for underground coal mines in March 2013.

Of course, any time taken for drills is time that could have been used to mine coal.

Clean coal

In Turkey the Soma miners were busily extracting so-called lignite, which holds less energy than other kinds of the burning rock. Such brown coal is really just buried and compressed peat. Lignite is the most polluting form of the most polluting fossil fuel, whether in terms of the climate change–inducing greenhouse gases released when it is burned or various other forms of air pollution.

But in Kemper County, Miss., a new power plant tied to a lignite mine could point the way to an alternative future for such dirty coal. "They mine the lignite right there and just put it in," explained Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in an interview with Scientific American last year. "We're going to go low-carbon but we think all the fuels with enough investment are going to have a place in that low-carbon world."


Courtesy of Mississippi Power

The Kemper integrated gasification combined cycle power plant will first turn the lignite into a gas for fuel, in the meantime stripping out the contaminants that cause air pollution, including capturing roughly two thirds of the carbon dioxide that would otherwise hit the atmosphere when the fuel is burned. That captured CO2 is then piped 100 kilometers to an old oil field, where it is pumped underground to scour out more crude, putting some of the CO2 back where it came from, albeit in a different form. Such enhanced oil recovery is meant to address the primary problem with such cleaner coal: cost.

Coal is expensive

The Kemper power plant is the fruit of several demonstration projects, including Mountaineer in West Virginia, to show that burning coal does not have to cause climate change. But such efforts have been stymied by the fact that making coal clean means making it more expensive.

The only reason coal is cheap is because the human costs of coal are not included in its price. Companies that take coal out of the ground don't have to pay to put it back in safely, after it's been reduced to toxic ash by burning. And firms that burn coal do not pay the medical bills of people stricken by breathing ailments as a result of air pollution. And no one pays, at least in the short run, to dump CO2 into the atmosphere, where it is steadily accumulating, trapping more and more heat and changing the global climate. It seems the dismal science of economics has trapped people in an abusive relationship with the dirtiest fossil fuel.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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