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Barbara Freese
It is coal that took mankind across the threshold from an agricultural society with its dependence on biomass and muscle to the age of steam and the industrial revolution. Coal also pollutes our air and water, while simultaneously improving life and prematurely shorten it. Photo: Barbara Freese.

Coal: A Human History - Part 2

Conclusion of interview with author and former Minnesota Assistant Attorney General, Barbara Freese on Coal: A Human History

By Bill Moore

To Part One

Compared to the Dickensonian views of London and Pittburg during the era of "King Coal," today's modern, western cities appear to be dramatically cleaner. So, as I continued our discussion with Coal: A Human History author, Barbara Freese, I asked her if we haven't made significant environmental improvements since the 1950's.

"Yes and no," was her immediate response. "You would be surprised at the percentage of pollution nationwide that is caused by coal. What we did over the years was to deal first with the most local and visible issues, but we still have an enormous number of coal plants in this country, first of all, who have not even installed the pollution control technologies that were developed in the 70s and 80s. They were granfathered in and they are still emitting huge amounts of pollution; and what that is causing is often much more invisible kinds of pollution that is spread out over much larger areas."

Freese cited as an example sulfur dioxide, which continues to be a serious health problem that she contended is prematurely shortening the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. She said that the physical size of pollutants, known as particular matter, being emitted by aging power plants is now so small that they can easily be inhaled and over time, damage lung tissue. We may have solved some of coal's more visible problems, but we've only succeeding in making the less visible pollutants harder to see and deal with effectively.

While an environmental attorney for the State of Minnesota, Freese had intended to write a book on the environmental impact of coal, but as she delved deeper into the subject, it became increasingly apparent that someone needed to document the human impact of coal, going far back in time to ancient Chinese and British histories.

Coal and the Origins of Communism
Her research would turn up many surprises, including the origins of the Communist Manifesto, not in Czarist Russia, but in the coal smoke-choked streets of Manchester, England where Karl Marx's collaborator, Fredric Engel was an executive at a large textile mill heavily dependent on the newly developed steam engine and the coal that powered it.

"Engel wasn't there because he wanted to be. His German father was part-owner of the mill," Freeze explained. "What he really wanted to be was at the front line of the worker's revolution that was going to begin at any moment. He was sort of this industrialist by day and revolutionary by night."

Engel would use his profits from the mill to support both his family and Karl Marx's, while they worked together on the Communist Manifesto and other highly influential publications about the plight of the working class in early industrial England.

"Without the coal industry, you simply would not have had the industrial working class. You would not have had this concentrated mass of people working in factories. You obviously had poor people before and people living in crowded urban areas, but it was really coal that allowed the factory movement and modern industrial capitalism, and all the social consequences that followed, and the rise of this very extreme doctrine in response in the form of communism.

"It really did set up many of the vast and sweeping conflicts of the twentieth century," she stated ," but not just the first and second world wars in the sense that you had Germany becoming a major industrial power at the same time."

Freese's devotion to researching and writing her first book eventually compelled her to leave his full-time job with the State Attorney General's office to work at home and travel abroad. "I would go to the library with suitcases and fill them and roll them home... Okay, it became a little bit obsessive," she admitted.

"Each chapter takes me into a new point in human history," she continued, "and what I did was follow my curiosity. It ended up being a much longer and time-consuming journey than I thought it was going to be."

That three-year journey ending up changing her perspective of coal and the coal industry; as she phrased it, it made her "somewhat more sympathetic, but no less concerned." Her approach in writing the book was to touch on both its benefits and its harm.

"You know, you really can't spend that much time looking that deeply into a subject without coming away with some sympathy for it. At one point, I was interviewing a coal company executive who before researching the book, I might have seen as a one-dimensional, pro-coal character, and would not have had a lot of sympathy for. When we finally spoke, even though we were on different sides of the issue, I realized, 'Hey, this guy talks coal. There not that many people in the world who can really speak of coal with a great interest. So I found it sort of interesting that I formed this little bond, even though we were on completely different [sides of] the issue on coal in the modern world."

Coal and Climate Change
"You can't think about the future of coal without thinking about climate change," Freese remarked when asked what she saw as the future of this plentiful, if dirty substance. "We are ratcheting up the level of greenhouse gases; we are taking the world in a direction that is catastrophic. We don't necessarily have to cross that threshold, but right now we are heading right for it... full steam ahead. Of all the fossil fuels, coal is the richest in carbon and therefore creates the most greenhouse gases when you burn it.

"So, in my mind, we need to be moving as quickly as possible away from the burning of coal and moving towards renewable energy. That seems to be the only thing that makes sense at this point. We need to be investing [in it] very aggressively."

Freese isn't totally opposed to burning coal if it's done in conjunction with carbon sequestration, which is still very much in its infancy and will probably add significantly to the cost of coal-fired electricity, a step that would make environmentally-friendly energy systems more financially attractive.

This approach means designing a completely new type of coal-fired power plant, one that has to first convert coal into a gas so the carbon can be captured for eventual disposal, probably underground. She pointed out that carbon sequestration isn't financially feasible as a retro-fit of existing plants. The carbon is already too diluted with air to be economically filtered and trapped after combustion.

From her perspective, Freese doesn't believe we will pursue this course for both economic, environmental and regulatory reasons. The cost of rebuilding existing plants or constructing new ones, plus the necessary infrastructure to handle the carbon sequestration will simply be too expensive, except in coal mining areas as part of politically-expedient jobs creation programs.

"As a former environmental regulator, I can tell you the issue of regulation is a nightmare, because it would be very, very easy for any of these facilities to simply vent that carbon dioxide to the air. It would mix so quickly with the global atmosphere that it would be undetectable.

"And because this is an international issue, it is going to have to be dealt with internationally," she stated, adding that we might trust the plants in West Virginia to properly dispose of their CO2, but will we trust the Chinese, or will they trust us? Good question.

"It is the sort of thing that if it is going to work will demand this intrusive international regulation. Ultimately, I think we have better options, and if we are looking at this not from the perspective of how do we save the coal industry, but whether how do we meet our energy needs as cleanly as possible in a sustainable way, I don't think you're going to conclude that we should be building new coal plants and burying the carbon dioxide. I think we're going to conclude that it makes much more sense to invest aggressively in renewables and in some means of collecting and distributing that energy that will solve the problem of intermittency."

Solving the problem of renewable energy intermittence is the key to making it a practical solution for replacing coal and the other fossil fuels, including oil, tar sands, oil shales, methane hydrates and natural gas.

The Menace of Mercury
We turned to the Bush Administration proposal to stretch out the time frame and relax the level of mercury allowed to be pumped into the atmosphere by all coal-fired power plants. A Clinton-era plan to dramatically cut mercury emissions from 48 tons annually to five tons in 5 years would be stretched out 15 years with a total annual emission 15 tons . The mercury in coal eventually finds itself washing into our rivers and lakes, and into the fish that inhabit them.

Mercury is a powerful neuro-toxin that can severely retard mental development in children of those mothers who eat mercury-contaminated fish. An estimated 4 million women in America have levels of mercury that exceeds federal limits.

"The more we delay dealing with that problem, the more mercury we'll have building up in our lakes and ultimately in our own bodies," Freese stated. "That is a huge problem."

Another serious bone of contention between environmentalists and the Bush Administration is a long contested regulation that would require old power plants to upgrade with new pollution controls. The Bush White House has gone along with the power industry in its interpretation of the "New Source Rule," which said that anytime an existing power plant made a major upgrade to its facilities, it would be required to also add pollution controls. The rule originally was written to insure the old plants eventually would be either torn down or brought up to current emission standards, a move the utility industry has resisted for profit motives, creating what Freese called a complicated, frustrating game of legal "cat and mouse" between the utilities and regulators.

In this respect, Freese agrees with the utilities. She doesn't think it makes sense spending billions of dollars to extend the working lives of these old plants. Instead, she believes they ought to be decommissioned and dismantled, and replaced with cleaner energy technologies, preferably renewables.

"Even if you put in these controls, you're still not dealing with carbon dioxide," she noted. "In some ways, spending an awful lot of money cleaning up an old coal plant is like putting a very expensive roof on a house with a crumbling foundation. I think that before any plant is invested in in that way, people need to sit down and say, 'Does this make sense, or should we just close it and spend that money on something clean that will really last?'"
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Freese isn't finished with coal as a literary topic. She's now researching her next book, which will pull together the lives of people who made coal the kingpin of the early industrial revolution. Her current book is also now available from Penguin books as a paperback that can be ordered online or through your local community book seller.

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Published: 06-Feb-2004

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