Next week I’m going to get into coal mining within British Columbia specifically but, while trying to write that particular post, I discovered that I know next to nothing about the mining and use of coal and so I thought I would add in a preliminary post going over the basics.
Since the 1880’s coal has been valued for its energy content and used to generate electricity, particularly within the steel and cement industries. While reserves are available in almost every county in the world, it is only mined in slightly over 50 of those although it can probably be expected that those remaining countries will be pressured to start coal mining activities in the near future.
Since its discovery as an efficient energy source, coal has been a popular choice in most countries of the world for several reasons:
- It is the cheapest known available source of energy
- It is an incredibly stable source
- It is often seen as benefiting the economy due to job creation
If the current levels of production are maintained, the planet’s coal reserves could be expected to last as long as another 150 years. However, these production levels have never been especially stable and it is predicted that countries in Asia and North America could run out as soon as 2030. This is unlikely to be alarming to any of the world’s other miners of this fossil fuel as the vast majority mined is used within its country of origin with only an average of 16% being exported. As of 2010, Canada was ranked as the 15th coal producing country of the world while ranking 12th in regards to the level of its reserves.
Despite the popularity of coal, and the benefits and convenience of its use for many countries, there are many dangers connected to it particularly when it comes to the mining process.
- Firedamp explosions – there are several flammable gasses found in coal mines, the gas accumulates in pockets with in the coal and when penetrated the release of these gases can trigger explosions.
- Coal dust explosions – the fine powdered form of coal which is created by the crushing and grinding of coal can become explosive when suspended in the air (it is susceptible to spontaneous combustion due to a higher surface area per unit of weight).
- Chronic lung diseases – these are caused by inhaling coal dust and the most common of these are coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or black lung disease.
There are also a number of environmental concerns involved in coal mining including:
- Water pollution – water that comes into contact with the coal mining process (particularly during extraction) often demonstrates high levels of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.
- Air pollution – the process of burning coal for energy produces greenhouse gasses and other pollutants including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury compounds, and nitrogen oxides.
- It also significantly alters the local ecosystem and the connected wildlife habitats of the area where the mine is built with the introduction of road and clearing of trees.
All in all, I’d probably say that coal was an excellent source of energy historically but, with the knowledge we have developed and the technological capabilities we have access to today, its probably long past time an effective alternative was found.