The world has run on fossil fuels for a couple of centuries but that is changing. Coal was the first of the fossil fuels to be widely exploited. Coal formed during what is called the carboniferous period about three to four hundred million years ago. At the time the planet was especially warm and wet which favored plant growth. Interestingly, this also meant much higher atmospheric levels of Oxygen which allowed for the growth of giant insects – dragonflies with three-foot wingspans as just one example.
The abundant plant growth accumulated first as peat, which over millennia of heat and pressure resulted in the formation of coal, essentially Carbon with a little Hydrogen smushed together in a solid form. And there it sat, until the English started running out of trees, or at least trees close by Iron smelters.
To produce iron from its ore requires something called a reducing agent. Wood works perfectly well but the process uses a lot of it. In merry olde England, a smelter would be built and then woodcutters were sent out to start bringing in the fuel. The longer the smelter operated the farther the woodcutters had to go while clearing the surrounding forests. When the expense of retrieving fuel got too high, coal was determined to be an economic alternative.
Utilization of coal for making iron lead to the understanding of its value as a fuel. It became the leading source of fuel for industrial power production and has dominated for over two hundred years. Of late the major use of coal has been for electricity generation but as of 2013, coal is no longer king and its use appears to be in free fall.
It is rapidly being replaced by a surge in the production of natural gas from hydro-fracturing and more recently wind and solar. Coal’s replacement is obvious and beneficial. Obvious because the other sources are cheaper and beneficial because they are cleaner in terms of the local environment and global warming.
A plank in President Trump’s campaign platform of 2016 was to reinvigorate the coal industry and save coal miner jobs. He has failed to deliver with this plank. Coal use during the first three years of his term is down over twenty percent, this despite several actions that would favor coal use.
President Trump has ordered the rollback of regulations that prevented much water pollution from coal ash. Another deregulation allows increased particulate emissions, along with toxic atmospheric pollutants like Mercury and Lead. He has ordered the removal of an Obama era regulation that required greater efficiency to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants which could actually reduce the cost to ratepayers.
In a fox-in-the-chicken-coop move, President Trump has appointed a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He rejects climate change and is a staunch opponent of any limit on greenhouse gases.
These regulations were meant to improve health, save lives, and help stabilize our climate. President Trump’s deregulations are endangering lives and destabilizing the climate and have been done in a futile attempt to prop up a failing industry.
Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.