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Coal vs Natural Gas

Coal Benefits
There are many arguments for the use of Coal to power our countries energy needs. Perhaps the best and most widely used case for coal is its abundance. Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on the entire planet. ( The United States itself has more coal reserves than any other nation in the world and accounts for over 25 percent of all of the coal in the world and coal is mined in over 50 percent of the states. ( The United States has so much coal reserves that it exceeds the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia in coal. ( The plentiful supply of coal makes it a top candidate for electricity generation. The abundance of coal helps ensure prices will stay low. Its abundance also ensures a stable energy source with no real threat of drastic shortages in the ???relative??? short-run. Currently the price of using coal for electric generation is cheaper than nuclear, natural gas, and oil. ( The major threat facing the low price stability of coal is regulations and taxes. It takes intervention in order to allow many of the other energy sources to be able to compete with the abundance and price that coal offers.


In the United States, the coal industry provides 174,000 full time, permanent blue collar jobs and an estimated 100,000 plus indirect jobs. With numbers like this it is no wonder that the coal industry provides more jobs than any other energy source within the United States. Coal helps power our generators that power manufacturing, retail, and homes. Coal provides about 49 percent of the electricity used in the United States and provides the world with 40 percent of its total electricity generation needs. ( The use of coal has four distinct job creating life cycle stages: removing coal from the earth, transportation to utility, the burning of the coal, and the deposal of the ash. ( Coal is American made and American produced. Coal plays a vital role in fueling the country and the economy.
Mining companies claim that the Mining of coal can even have great benefits for surface and mineral owners. One relatively new method of coal extraction is through mountain top removal. Mountain top removal is almost exactly as it sounds, first all topsoil and vegetation are removed, second the mountain top is blasted, the coal in mined and processed and finally the land is reclaimed. ( After the mountaintop is reclaimed the surface owner is left with a much flatter, useable surface. Even when the surface and mineral rights of a property have been separated, the surface owners are still often paid for damages incurred during the coal mining excavation. ( For some land owners the mining is win-win. They have the opportunity to make extra money off of their land, sometimes even greater than the actual value of the land, and in mountain topping they get a flatter, more ???usable??? piece of property. There are also laws that require that coal operators reclaim mined land. Laws such as the 1977 federal Surfacing Mining law or the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) help ensure surface land and the environment will be restored to an adequate standard. (
Other site reclamations include removal of mining infrastructure, filling of mine area, and re-vegetation.

Coal Disadvantages
There is no question that coal has played a major rule in the development of America, but coal also has very dirty, ugly side. Coal is actually the dirtiest of all of the fossil fuel choices and is also the greatest contributor of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas. With Coal being so abundant and cheap it is no wonder it ranks as the number one power generation fuel, but because of coals carbon emissions it also accounts for 83% of all man produced carbon dioxide pollution since 1990. (
Coal contains about 30 percent more carbon than Oil and about twice as much carbon as natural gas.
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels
– Pounds per Billion Btu of Energy Input |
Pollutant | Natural Gas | Oil | Coal |
Carbon Dioxide | 117,000 | 164,000 | 208,000 |
Carbon Monoxide | 40 | 33 | 208 |
Nitrogen Oxides | 92 | 448 | 457 |
Sulfur Dioxide | 1 | 1,122 | 2,591 |
Particulates | 7 | 84 | 2,744 |
Mercury | 0.000 | 0.007 | 0.016 |
Source: EIA – Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998 |

Another deadly byproduct of coal is its mercury pollution. About 40 percent of all airborne mercury is directly related to coal fired generation. The airborne mercury is carried by clouds and later dispersed by rainwater into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Tiny organisms eat the mercury, transforming it into methylmercury. The methylmercury is then moved up the food chain. The longer the lifespan of animals, such as humans, the worse effects of the poisoning as it builds up in the organisms. It is estimated that 1 in 6 women of child bearing age currently have mercury level that could be harmful to a baby fetus. Mercury exposure at high levels can harm Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages and high levels of methylmercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm the developing nervous system and can affect the child??™s ability to think and learn.

???Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution in the United

Another byproduct of coal generation is sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide contributes to the formation of acid rain, which damages forests, crops, and buildings, and acidifies lakes, streams, and rivers, making them unsuitable for aquatic plant and animal life. The EPA estimates that more than 73 percent of sulfur dioxide production in the U.S. comes from electric utilities and 93 percent is generated by coal power plants. Coal-fired power plants are the largest human-caused source of sulfur dioxide Sulfur dioxide also can impair the respiratory system. High levels can alter breathing, cause illness and aggravate heart and lung diseases. Exposure at low levels can still irritate lungs and throat and even cause bronchitis.
With all the problems cause by burning coal and the side effects of sulfur dioxide, it is no surprise that there are now some mandates in the United States on coal plants. Many coal plants have now been built of retrofitted with smokestack scrubbers. The scrubbers help trap the metals contained in the flue gas and turn them into a solid/sludge waste. The technology is expensive and the sludge still requires disposal. Less than half of the sludge is recycles and the remainder of the sludge is kept in landfills.
The Table below shows the coal fired power plants with over 100 MW capacity with scrubber and percentage of sulfur dioxide removal rates as of 2005.
SO2 Removal Rate | # of Plants | Total Capacity |
Over 90% | 94 | 46,734 MW |
80-89% | 49 | 21,613 MW |
70-79% | 52 | 20,950 MW |
16-69% | 11 | 3,825 MW |
Even if all of the sulfur dioxide, mercury and other particles associated with coal burning could be captured there is still the issue with sludge landfills.
Landfill dikes can break such as the one pictured above causing billions of dollars of damage and unimaginable environmental destruction. The landfills still contain all the harmful byproducts of coal burning, but in a more controlled location. There is still risk of ground water contamination.
There is also the downside of the coal mining. One method of mining, as discussed earlier, deals with mountain top removal. This process destroys native wildlife habitat, creates run off problems as well as exposing underground toxins such as sulfur and mercury. There has been links in biodiversity of streams as well as health problems in humans, including: double the amount of cancer reported not explainable by age, sex, smoking status, occupation, or family history along with higher rate of birth defects.
Coal mining also increases the risk of underground coal fires. It is believed that almost one percent of all coal related carbon emissions come from one uncontrolled Chinese coal fire. The coal fires are in many cases are impossible to extinguish once started.

Coal fires emit toxic fumes, can even create fires above ground, and destroy infrastructure such as roads and buildings. The fires can to burn for centuries depending the size of the coal seams and there are currently thousands of underground coal fires burning today. The global emissions are estimated to include 40 tons of mercury going into the atmosphere annually, and even total three percent of the worlds annual carbon dioxide emissions.,8599,2006195,00.html
It is estimated that coal cost the U.S. 500 billion per year in health care cost alone, raising the price of coal from .6 cents per kWh to 9-27 cents per kWh.
It would appear that many of the coal costs borne on society are not reflected in the ???cheap??? price of coal.

Natural Gas Benefits
Like coal, natural gas is abundant and there is a plentifully domestic supple. Thanks to new discoveries in hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling technology there is an estimated supply of over 100 years??™ worth of natural gas under American soil. According to the Wall Street Journal, ???Weve got more of it right here in America than Saudi Arabia has oil and are now the worlds biggest producer.??? The new technologies in drilling have made natural gas an affordable and abundant fuel source for electrical generation.
Unlike coal, natural gas has many uses other than power generation. Natural gas can be used for transportation, home heating, and natural gas liquids or NGLs are used in the manufacturing of thousands of plastic products. Compressed natural gas or CNG is a more environmentally clean alternative to gasoline and diesel and it in the event of a spill is much easier to clean up while also being an environmentally safer alternative. Mainly public transportation and company vehicle have been converted to CNG because of the high initial cost, but after installation there are many benefits over gasoline include: reduced nitrogen oxide emissions(smog), reduced greenhouse gas emissions, lower cost of fuel (70% cheaper than gasoline ), any vehicle can be converted, noise reduction, and reduced engine wear. Currently in the United States, there is still a lack of infrastructure and fueling stations for non-routine route drivers, but it CNG vehicles are still projected to increase ten-fold. Natural gas is also commonly used in homes. Natural gas appliances are generally more efficient than electric appliances. Many times when Natural gas is produced there will NGLs that need to be separated before pipeline transportation. These NGL include ethane, propane, butane, isobutane, and pentane. These NGLs are usually are tied in closer to crude oil price than natural gas price, so generally sell for a premium. The uses of NGLs are almost endless, from plastics to heating to even transportation. Propane can more easily be transported than natural gas to more remote areas that may not have natural gas pipelines.
Natural gas is a much cleaner than coal. Natural gas-fired power generation stations produce about 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than brown coal-fired generators, and half the emissions of the highest technology black coal plants. Natural gas also has a lower heat rate than coal, so it loses less efficiency per kWh. Natural gas also contains no mercury, natural gas contains a third of the nitrogen oxides as coal, and natural gas contains less than 99 percent of the sulfur oxides as the equivalent coal plant. Unlike coal, when natural gas is burned there is virtually no substantial solid waste.
Natural gas also has a land use advantage over coal. Whereas coal displaces large amounts of land, even when coal is mined hundreds of feet underground, surface level often drop to lower than previous levels as the earth underneath is ???aerated??? allowing groundwater flow to be disruptednice. Technologies such as horizontal pad drilling allow companies to have a small surface footprint. The pad drilling also reduces the road access required to individual well sites. A pad with twelve horizontal wells has one slightly bigger pad, but reduces the need for 48 individual pads and individual access roads. (

Natural Gas Disadvantages

We wouldn??™t be able to talk about natural gas disadvantages without talking about hydraulic fracturing or fracking in horizontal shale plays. There is a lot of debate over fracking and whether fracking can lead to water contamination. The fracking process actually occurs miles below the freshwater table and miles also often separate the water table and fracking zone. There has never been a documented case of the fracking process that has contaminated ground water.
There has however, been casing leaks in wells that have contaminated some freshwater supplies along with the chemical spills of frack fluid during the well completion process. If these chemicals are spilled they can poison and even kill plant and wildlife. It is a rare occurrence for either to occur, but it remains a possibility.
The real disadvantage to natural gas is that it is primarily made up of methane. When methane is compared to carbon dioxin it is 20 more times more potent in locking in heat over the course of a hundred year time frame and 100 times more potent over a ten year time frame. It is also important to note that the biggest contributor to methane in the environment is not from the burning of fossil fuel, but rather grazing cattle. Even though natural gas burned has been steadily increasing, methane levels in the U.S. were on the decline from 1990 to 2004, which is believed to be linked to severe droughts in wetlands, better management of landfill, gas wells and oil wells. As technology increases there is less methane that can escape well heads. No gas company wants to release methane into the air, lost methane is lost profits.
It is important to mention gas hydrates when talking about natural gas and methane. As the climate continues on this warming path, frozen tundra begins to melt releasing hydrates. This unburned methane seeps into the atmosphere speeding up global warming even quicker. Harvesting these hydrates could have great benefits for the worlds ???cleaner??? energy needs along with trading methane emissions the lesser evil of carbon dioxide emissions. (

There is currently no one energy solution that will solve all of the world??™s energy needs and demands. Solar can be expensive and it takes up huge amounts of land area. Wind energy is usually seen as an eyesore, is limited to certain areas of the country, and kills thousands of birds and bats every day. All solar energy currently relies on weather conditions, solar energy is difficult to store and transportation to populated areas is a challenge. Nuclear can be cheap and highly efficient, but has a very dangerous dark radioactive side. Crude oil can be dirty and is not evenly distributed around the world. Coal is a dirty energy source and natural gas has some drawbacks as well. We need energy and there is a link between energy and standard of living. Countries that have the highest standard of living, also generally use the highest amounts of energy.

When comparing natural gas to coal it appears natural gas comes out on top. Natural gas beats coal on price. Natural gas power plants are cheaper to build and do not face the same political uncertainty that coal plants face, such as a risk of a carbon tax. Since natural gas omits 30-40 percent less carbon dioxide a carbon tax would benefit natural gas over coal. Natural gas is less polluting than coal and much easier to use and burn. It is much less labor intensive to drill for gas then it is to mine for coal and statistically natural gas also wins out on worker safety accidents. Gas drilling also wins out on having a smaller environmental impact. The argument can be made that clean coal is the future, but currently the technology is extreamly expensive and carbon dioxide injection well of the magnitude that would be required is currently a fantasy. The level of injection that would be required is so massive that the risks associated with the injection would be through the roof.
Natural gas seems to be the cleaner choice, but by all means the world will still need coal. Coal plants should be gently phased out and the future should run on natural gas. I believe natural gas can be a clean alternative bridge fuel that gets us to the next big breakthrough in energy technology and possibly even more importantly, energy efficiency.