Fossil fuels’ massive pollution

Clean stuff filthy stuff

So we all know that burning coal and oil to generate electricity is bad for the climate. CO2 levels refuse to level out–we broke through the 400 ppm barrier earlier this year. And the folks at the UN who are reporting on the Paris accords have just acknowledged that what we are trying to do to keep temperatures to less than 2°C isn’t going to work.

So enter the ring Big Oil. It’s got it all figured aout.

Now Big Oil likes big solutions. And the more technically complex the better–because that’s what keeps them funded.

The logic is nice and simple. If CO2 emissions in power generation flue gases is a problem, well then, we will just have to find a way to take the CO2 out of the gases and put it someplace else. And in fact there is an easy way of stripping the CO2 out of power station gases by using chemicals called ethylamines. Ethylamines absorbs CO2 which can then be dumped some place else. Like pumped deep underground where it is supposed to stay for ever. Yeah right.

The oil companies and their university pals are workng hard on this problem. And they have come up now with an even better idea: tests are underway of a fuel cell that absorbes CO2 from a gas stream, generates electricity at the same time, and pumps out the CO2 in a form that can be compressed, liquified, and disposed of by being and pumped underground. Underground again.

It’s a complex process, and expensive. But if it allows electricity to be generated from fossil fuels without CO2 emissions: that’s the holy grail of fossil-fuel power system technologies.

So what’s not like to like?

What’s not to like is everything that’s not being talked about. Let’s totally forget about CO2 emissions for the moment. Imagine coal and oil that burns without producing any carbon dioxide. None at all. Isn’t that great?

Nope. It’s not. Start at the beginning. Think about the oil giants and the coal companies that get the stuff out of the ground. The oil spills that wreck marine and coastal environments, cover wildlife in thick glutinous sludge, and destroy local ecosystems; the coal miners working deep underground that are killed by the hundreds each year; either by accidents in the mines or by lung cancer caused by breathing in all that coal dust. And this is just to get the stuff out of the ground. Never mind getting it into the power stations or the refineries. Particularly oil: oil tanker accidents that foul miles of coastline beaches, offshore oil wells that leak a million gallons of crude, pipelines a thousand kilometers long, train wagons loaded with oil rumbling slowly through towns in the mid-west and Canada. There will always be accidents. Always.

So then we burn all this liquid or solid carbon stuff for energy. Either in power stations to generate electricity, or in the cars, buses, and trains that carry us to work and back every day. What happens when you burn carbon fuels? So leave aside the CO2 for the moment. What else do we have ready to get into our lungs? Believe me, it’s a long list of disgusting stuff.

Starting with particulate matter. These are the microscopic particles of black carbon, like soot, that are dispersed into the air and which are breathed into your lungs every minute of the day if you live in an urban environment. Then there is a toxic mix of gases: oxides of nitrogen and sulphur that seriously damage your lungs (don’t worry–that’s why God gave you two), and trace elements like mercury, arsenic, chromium, and a host of others which just poison you slowly. So again don’t worry, you’ll already be dead by the time they kick in.

The air pollution levels in many cities around the world (including London) are now so bad that they are literally killing people. Not just thousands, but millions of people globally each year. This pollution doesn’t come from volcanoes. It’s not an act of God. It kills because we choose to make energy from carbon fuels–fracked, sucked, pumped and ripped out of the ground.

Think about the smell of carbon fuels and coal. Drive by an oil refinery and open the car window. Get close to a coal mine and sniff the air. What do you smell? It’s the sooty sulphurous odour of carbon fuels. It’s a cocktail of sulpher, carbon, and volatiles: the chemicals that evaporate into warm air and get into your lungs.

The point is that carbon fuels don’t do anything until you burn them. Until they actually burn they are entirely useless. It’s not money that makes the world round: it’s combustion.

Contrast this with solar energy and wind power. When did an array of photovoltaic panels cause a major environmental disaster? What is there to leak out and pollute an entire coastline? When did a PV panel kill a marine mammal? True, wind turbines can kill birds and bats, but compare that with the millions of fishes, marine mammals, and birds suffocated and drowned by oil spills over the last few decades. Or the tens of millions of birds killed each year by by cats.  And birds will learn to avoid wind turbines. Of course they will. Just like they learned to avoid predators like us. And at least wind turbines stay put and don’t shoot you.

Take a deep breath around a megawatt scale solar photovolatic array, or a giant 5 MW wind turbine. What do you smell? Only the grass in the fields where they are installed. Listen in. What do you hear?

It’s simple. There is clean stuff and there is filthy stuff. Which would you rather have?

And which would your children choose?

Martin J Bush can be found worrying about the future of the planet at 

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