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Coal: the dirtiest, most plentiful fossil fuel 

Coal Gasification:"Oil-crisis solutions are not technological"- Jan Lundberg

"Oil companies spent $8 billion on exploration in 2003, but discovered only $4 billion of commercially useful oil."
- from a New York Times op-ed article by Thomas Homer-Dixon and S. Julio Friedmann, published: March 25, 2005 (see
This oil-exploration/extraction fact should tell anyone that the peak of global oil production, and the even greater historical impact of the peak, is nigh if not upon us.
This article is a good balloon-buster of the usual technofixes, but then it offers its own technofix of gasification at power plants, as an example of "bridge technologies."  The gasification creates "superhot gas that is rich in hydrogen" and the two byproducts, supposedly, are hydrogen (supposedly available for energy), and carbon dioxide which supposedly can be pumped into the earth and stashed indefinitely.  How this approach begins to deal with (or fail to deal with) the other myriad uses of petroleum, from an energy and materials supply standpoint, is not mentioned.
It was disappointing to see this unworkable "solution" of gasification offered for substituting petroleum, as if electric power and some hydrogen solve the dilemma of petroleum depletion and climate change.  Petroleum supplies will be extremely short right after the peak of petroleum extraction is felt. Ignored in this op-ed, as always, is the fact that the whole economic, industrial and agricultural infrastructure is petroleum-wired.  When the shortage is noticed by volatile markets, the doo-doo will hit the fan with devastating, permanent impact that cannot be under-emphasized.  The fact that the U.S. is overpopulated is a prime concern when petroleum fails to provide as spectacularly as it has.
The op-ed discussed conservation and energy efficiency only as "demand side" management, without giving much credence to their potential for saving our lives and the biosphere.  It seems impossible for people such as these authors and almost everyone else in the mainstream media to visualize a local-based economic system that is truly sustainable.  No surprise, when they bow down to car makers' advertising dollars in the billions.  Mainly, it is about a mindset that places nature on the back burner -- but she's boiling over instead of nurtured and revered.
This is the op-ed's full treatment on cutting demand, after the excellent paragraphs dismissing the potential for solar, hydrogen (despite the subsequent gasification pitch), wind and nuclear: "Of course technology is always improving, and down the road some or all of these technologies may become more feasible. But for the near term, there is no silver bullet. The scale and complexity of American energy consumption are such that the country needs to look at many different solutions simultaneously. On the demand side, this means huge investments in conservation and energy efficiency - two areas that policy makers and consumers have sadly neglected."  True, but the article neglects them too.
Jan Lundberg

Also see Pincas Jawetz's article on this website: Sprinting Madly to the Arctic for its section on the coal gasification op-ed


"We have declared October as "hell month" for National Coal - the Knoxville, Tennessee based coal company responsible for the mining of Zeb Mountain." - Katuah Earth First! Latest update

As part of our critique of the oil and car culture, it is inescapable to address fossil-fueled electric-power generation, direct factory energy use and home/commercial heating.  Coal presents a worse threat to the environment and a sustainable world than natural gas because it is dirtier, cheaper and more plentiful.

After mountain top removal (in West Virginia)

One way coal is dirtier is in land use.  Although strip mining has mitigations that are sometimes carried out as well as possible, the effects even in those cases is a trashed landscape and disrupted water flows.  In Tennessee, Zeb Mountain is the scene of a campaign to save thousands of acres from strip mining.  Our CultureChange correspondent on the scene brings us this update October 1, 2003:

Three organizations are suing the Office of Surface Mining (in the Department of the Interior) under NEPA to get a full EIS done (to stall the mine) for the permit that OSM issued to the coal company for 2,000 acres of strip mining. Only an Environmental Assessment was done before granting the permit but massive environmental and community impacts have already been felt in the few months that blasting and mining have been going on. The case is called SOCM v. Norton and the hearing for a preliminary injunction is coming up on Tues. Oct. 7 in federal district court in Knoxville (6th Circuit). The coal company successfully intervened last week, so now the defendants are Robert Clear Coal Co. and the Department of the Interior (Gail Norton, head). SOCM stands for Save Our Cumberland Mountains and the other two plaintiffs are the Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project.  - Alexandria Solomon

Coal mining is an insidious, polluting activity that consumerism contributes to.  There is protest, a little here and there.  In addition to the coverage on the recent Earth First! action in Tennessee on behalf of Zeb Mountain, also see an Indymedia report for more on that action.

Check back for updates.  Here's Zeb Mountain, below:

Slashing energy use immediately is essential to attain a sustainable society.  Coal-derived energy may be the best place to start, TODAY.

Electric energy's greatest single source in the U.S. and most nations is coal.  There is little effort anywhere to cut energy use; even environmental groups (especially well funded ones in the U.S.) divert focus from conservation to developing renewable energy.  The purpose of this posturing, flying in the face of the ecological crisis and energy reality, is to (1) appear non-threatening in terms of solutions to pollution and (2) bring in funding from the establishment counting on continued consumerism, such as cars propelled someday by non-petroleum fuels.  

As made clear in several Sustainable Energy Institute/Culture Change webpages, renewable energy cannot provide ample, clean energy for a huge population for a long duration.  Coal is not a flexible fuel or an essential part of the present petroleum infrastructure.  

Coal cannot and will not perpetuate a global fossil- fueled economy, according to Jan Lundberg, petroleum analyst and founder of SEI/Culture Change.  Coal is counted on for hydrogen fuel manufacturing, according to the Bush Administration's vision for funding hydrogen sources. 

 Hydrogen can be made from solar which powers a fuel cell, separating hydrogen from water, but the feasibility is limited and the fossil fuels industries resist changing to renewable energy.  (See Fuel Cell, )  Jeremy Rifkin's book, The Hydrogen Economy, is another booster of hydrogen while not proving its feasibility.  A consultant to utilities, Rifkin has sought the bucks and sold us the hype, while using the warning of peak-oil induced future shortage to convince the reader that hydrogen is inevitable for a better tomorrow.

Coal is also a dead end when climate protection is considered: coal gives off twice as much carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) as natural gas and 25% more than oil.  

According to Climate Crisis, a book designed to be a briefing for funders, temperatures world wide will be on average 15.8 degrees F hotter by 2100 compared to today.  Published in association with The Ecologist magazine in the UK, Climate Crisis cites research by the UK's Hadley Centre, part of the World Meteorological Organisation, which took into account positive feedback loops: the more coal and petroleum used, the hotter the globe gets, which causes release of more greenhouse gases from a variety of sources.  The more release of these gases, the hotter the globe, ad infinitum. (See Global Warming Crisis Council in this website)

Citizens and Activists Join in Solidarity to Protest Mountaintop Removal 

Appalachia, VA - In response to the death of a three-year-old child, Jeremy Davidson, in the small town of Appalachia, VA, over 100 local residents and KEF!ers took to the streets in protest of A&G Coal Company and Mountaintop Removal (MTR) Saturday, September 25th, 2004. 

Jeremy was killed in August by a 600-pound boulder from the MTR mine site behind his house that came crashing through his window as he slept. The paramedics spent one and a half hours trying to resuscitate him, but unfortunately could not. The A&G Coal Company was fined a mere $15,000 for three violations, one of which was responsible for the death Jeremy. 

At a rally near the home of Jeremy, many folks spoke about the horrors of MTR. The politics of direct action were well received by local folks who are fed up with government agencies turning a blind eye to the blatant disrespect of coal companies towards local communities. “We’re through with being polite,” proclaimed internationally renowned grassroots organizer Judy Bonds from West Virginia. “I got 70-year-old ladies ready to lay down in front of bulldozers to stop this destruction!” 

The people of Appalachia are fed up with the harassment of the coal companies. Pete Ramey, a local resident, has been sued by the coal companies and land owners for demanding protection from dangers of MTR in his community. “We must demand swift action to help our communities,” asserted Ramey. “There is no need to sacrifice land and community; we can have both!” 

Even the House Delegate for Wise County (Appalachia’s county), Bud Phillips, declared “The Division of Mine, Land, and Reclamation is in the pockets of the coal companies.” Folks across coal country are ready for action; it is obvious to them that the coal companies view their lives as expendable in the name of profit and are destroying the life support systems of their communities. 

KEF!ers spoke with locals during the march who described respiratory problems resulting from dust from the mine and pointed out polluted rivers where they used to go fishing. Coal mining families are coming out against their very livelihoods by attacking MTR. Patty Sebock, also of West Virginia and a wife of a coal miner, reminded the crowd that “Real miners don’t mine coal in the daylight,” speaking to the history of deep tunnel mining of the Appalachian coal fields. 

A spokeswoman for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth compared the residents of coal fields to the canaries once used in coal mines as indicators of toxic working conditions. “We are tired of being the nation’s sacrifice zone [for energy supply]!” 

Following the rage built up in Appalachia because of wrong doings by the A&G Coal Company, a group of men and wimmin with Earth First! took action by placing locks on all gates to the premises and gluing shut the locked front doors of A&G’s office building. A sign reading, “We won’t stop until you do. See you in the mountains… Earth First!” was left as well. 

The destruction of the Southern Appalachians by King Coal must not continue, and Katuah Earth First!, along with coal field residents, will do everything we can to stop it. 

For the Earth, 
"Get involved! The world is run by those who show up!!"

Knoxville protest against mountain top removal
Lawsuit against cronyism and pollution 

Press Advisory
Earth First! Action -- Monday morning, October 6, 2003.
Katuah Earth First! staged a dramatic action this morning aimed at unmasking a conspiracy surrounding the federal court case to be held this Tuesday in
Knoxville.  The court case involves a plot by TVA, the Office of Surface Mining and the Robert Clear Coal Company to bring the newest destructive mining practice to the Tennessee Valley -- mountain top removal.  Earth First! members dropped banners reading “STOP MTN TOP REMOVAL .COM” off of a billboard near the News Sentinel building.
         TVA, in accordance with environmental laws, has installed new scrubbers in several of their coal plants, therefore raising their rates to pay for these
installations.  The use of the new scrubbers is enabling TVA to burn higher sulfide coal, which is extracted through methods such as mountain top
removal.  The cost of the new scrubbers, which has increased the price of power, is actually allowing TVA to use cheap, low quality coal that has a more
detrimental environmental effect.
          Mountain top removal is quicker and less costly for companies to perform, but is the most environmentally devastating means of coal extraction in history. Mountain top removal, or cross ridge mining, is essentially taking one hundred times the amount of dynamite used in the Oklahoma City bombing, blowing off the top of the mountain, gathering the old coal that is left from previous mining, and scraping the remains back into a pile.  The end result is a bare mountain, virtually leveled.
         TVA is a major purchaser of coal in this region and subsequently the main contributor to mountain top removal. Their first onslaught of our region is the dismantling of Zeb Mountain, currently underway. “This project will destroy habitat for a number of endangered species such as the black sided dace (a small fish), the Indiana bat, and several freshwater mussels,” says John Johnson, who lives near Dunlap TN. Braden Mountain, which is next on the chopping block, is 7500 acres of majestic forest waiting in line to be clear cut and blown to pieces.  This act of environmental devastation will also threaten the sanctity of the regional community’s watershed, an issue entirely overlooked in the preliminary environmental assessment.  We have to stand up and do something now, before the local ecosystems are obliterated along with the mountains. 
           The federal preliminary hearing an injunction to cease mountain top removal on Zeb Mountain will be held Tuesday October 7 at 1:30pm in Knoxville.  This case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Thomas
Varlan.   Judge Varlan, who was appointed by Bush, is highly endorsed by the CEO of TVA, Bill Baxter. Thomas Varlan was formerly employed by Bass, Berry and Sims PLLC, a law firm with a record of proudly defending
companies that knowingly break environmental laws, helping them to obtain permits to continue devastating the environment (  “The appointment of this judge is an obvious scenario of conflict of interest and makes it virtually impossible for an unbiased hearing.  Judge Varlan should be recused from the Zeb Mountain lawsuit,” said Elizabeth Albiston, a member of local environmental group Earth First!
      There is a significant lack of discussion in the local mainstream media about mountain top removal.  A participant in Monday’s action stated that “We dropped the banner in front of the Knoxville News Sentinel
building so they would make a greater effort to inform the public, who has a right to know about this important issue.  We made the website,, to give the public a reference point to learn about mountain top removal.”  Our mountains are entitled to a fair trial, and now is the time for us as Tennesseans to be aware of the practices that destroy our mountains and their repercussions. As a state we need to realize that this
affects our health and that of the plant and animal species indigenous to this area. Someone must protect them, and it is our job!
Excellent photo ops and exclusive information For more information, call 865-385-3078.

Find out why Earth First!ers staged a protest of mountain top renewal, and what a court case is about in Knoxville

Coal-fired power plant pollution means -- besides acid rain -- mercury pollution

Senators, states call on EPA to toughen mercury pollution proposal

The Associated Press
April 1, 2004
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration's plan for reducing mercury emissions from power plants came under criticism on two fronts Thursday as nearly half of the Senate and 10 states urged the Environmental Protection Agency to propose stronger requirements. [Read remainder of story.and related one below:]


April 1, 2004
based on a report by Kathy McCormack, Associated Press

Concord, NH - Concerned about mercury levels in the water, 10 states, including New Jersey, have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to scrap a proposed rule on reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, saying it's not strict enough...

The EPA has been exploring options for reducing the 48 annual tons of mercury emitted from 1,100 coal-burning power plants. It is proposing the idea of trading pollution rights, rather than making each plant reduce emissions to a designated level.

Connecticut's Attorney General said a cap-and-trade system would concentrate mercury pollution in hot zones, condemning residents to brain and nerve illnesses simply so a few companies can fatten their already obese bottom lines.

The United Nations' Environment Programme warns that global mercury emissions are rising as developing nations add more coal-fired plants. Mercury emissions can be blown thousands of miles. 

Americans are also exposed to methyl mercury - a chemical form of mercury - from fish caught in other parts of the world and sold in the United States. U.S. negotiators at the meeting in Nairobi were told to oppose any process that might lead to an international agreement to reduce mercury emissions from power plants, according to a memo outlining the administration's position. Instead, U.S. negotiators proposed creating a program to advise developing countries how to mitigate health risks from mercury, such as crafting warnings to the public about eating species of fish high in methyl mercury. 

Negotiations deadlocked until the last day when European negotiators agreed to an advisory program and U.S. negotiators agreed to place the mercury issue on the agenda for the environment ministers' next meeting in 2005. Currently, there is no regulation of mercury emissions from power plants in the United States.

Source: Joan Lowy, Scripps-Howard News Service
March 30, 2004


Summary:  US Secy. of State Colin Powell pressures European leaders to avoid regulating highly toxic pollutants, because Brussels wants to force companies to register some 30,000 substances with a new agency, and to demonstrate that the chemicals they produce and use are safe. High-risk chemicals would require special authorisation, under plans that have to be backed by EU member states and the European parliament. The Commission argues that the new rules are necessary because an estimated 100,000 chemicals used today are not covered by the current regulatory regime. But industry representatives have warned that the new rules will destroy jobs and competitiveness.


"It takes just the amount of one mercury temperature household-size fever-thermometer to contaminate all the fish and water and life of one 20 acre lake. That's 0.7 grams of mercury!  48 tons is 48,000,000 grams, enough for approximately 68,571,428 (million) 20-acre lakes."  Tony Pereira, ME, EIT


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Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit organization.