Despite what many political candidates and incumbents espouse during election
years, there is no such thing as clean coal. That being said, the immense
contribution to global warming of the mining and burning of coal has the
potential to be offset to a certain extent. To be clear, what I am about to
share with you in no way addresses mercury hotspots or other mercury-related
issues which arise from our reliance on coal.
Coal mines often contain byproducts which in some cases we capture and in other
cases we vent into the atmosphere. Methane gas in a common example and,
tragically, its ubiquity in mines is a leading cause of sudden disasters in
mining communities. The geological history of our planet is one of the main
reasons that the methane is present. The gas was created and compressed over
eons of planetary evolution and then trapped beneath the surface. Slicing into
the Earth’s crust to extract the coal can allow the methane to escape.
If we think of mines as rudimentary tombs, the potential for repurposing becomes
an intriguing concept. After all, if the Earth’s crust was solid enough and
strong enough to create and retain billions of BTUs of methane, might it not be
possible to use this tomb concept to store other substances? Indeed it can and
sequestration is the operative word!
Environmentally speaking, we should desist all coal mining today, right now as
you read this. For a variety of reasons, that won’t happen so let’s make the
best of a dirty situation. The same politicians who love to blather on about
clean coal also are enamored with the concept of carbon sequestration as a means
of fighting global warming. The hard science behind such positions indicates
that it can help but is very, very far from being a panacea.
Nevertheless, the sequestration of carbon in mines can be an important stop gap
measure which I support, mostly for sentimental reasons since it was the bitumen
and coke previously located in the mines which brought us the climate crisis of
the new millennium. What more logical place to store some of the byproducts is
In my next installment, I will share with you an encouraging yet distinct
repurposing of abandoned mines. It does not sequester carbon directly but can
result in significant decreases in the use of fossil fuels, having a similar net