Coal and the Space-Time Continuum

Albert Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  This is a guiding principle the nation would do well to consider as we navigate planning for life after dependence on finite energy resources.

Clean energy transportation

Imagine West Virginia is a well-respected policy think tank that dove into the deep end when it issued its first formal policy recommendations in April 2008 with Coal: Energy, the Environment & West Virginia.  This report is a good example of keeping things simple without going too far in that direction.

Testament to what IWV did very well is that the report’s facts are not in dispute.  What one ought to conclude or support from the facts is a contentious issue, however, so there has been some heat in the kitchen for over two years.  I was reminded last week of the statistic that “projections suggest that there is sufficient coal to meet the nation’s energy needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption.”

What brought this stat to mind was someone’s comment that “coal isn’t running out any time soon.”  This is a verbatim phrase I’ve heard so many times I almost ignore it now, but for some reason this time it brought me to full attention.  Coal isn’t running out any time soonWe have about 100 years.

On both sides of my family, 100 years is one human lifetime.  It is an exceptionally long lifetime, but it is one nonetheless.  When you see 10 decades that way, it feels like we have no business exhaling over the finite nature of coal as an energy resource.  If you have not yet read the IWV report, you may enjoy learning more about what a significant slice of the energy pie it is at home and abroad.  It is quite clear that even if one wanted to just stop the use of coal tomorrow there is currently no other developed alternative energy that is ready to fill the gap based on current demand.

Human beings can step up when they have to save their own rear ends.  We will most likely get it together to fill the coal gap before my child is a grandmother, but not if we continue to act like coal isn’t running out any time soon.  Einstein also theorized, “For objects travelling near light speed, the theory of relativity states that objects will move slower and shorten in length from the point of view of an observer on Earth.” 

I’m not 100% sure why I think this has something to do with the whole kit and kaboodle, but I think it might.  It’s also probably not simple.

6 thoughts on “Coal and the Space-Time Continuum

  1. I too think we are on a collision course with reality and should be planning for a future without coal, whether it be because we have run out of it or we’ve found alternatives that are cheaper and/or less polluting.

    West Virginia has been an energy leader for more than a century and is one of only ten states that produces more energy than it consumes. Energy also is West Virginia’s main area of research strength, and the state has a fairly progressive energy plan.

    All we’re missing is … leadership.

    • Thanks for those facts too, Dennis. I didn’t know that about our status on consumption v. production.

      Your point on leadership is right on the money. I’ve seen some good people try to facilitate leadership on the issue, and the inertia to just stay the course is frighteningly strong.

  2. Actually, there is a pretty significant problem with that report, in that it promotes coal-to-liquids technology as a way to boost coal production and help the West Virginia economy, while also being environmentally friendly … the problem is that coal-to-liquids products twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as liquid petroleum fuels, so it will actually make climate change and global warming worse.

    • I appreciate this comment. I have not read the report in detail since its release, and should have done so before saying its facts are not in dispute. My impression is what you say, that coal to liquids is more an in-theory solution than an actual one when it comes to environmental pollution.

      I am no expert in this area, but it often seems that anything related to coal is so political (and frankly emotional for many people) that it’s very difficult to get a pure document. Are there any other fact-based concerns you have with the report? As I mentioned, I think there is more debate about what the facts should be driving than the facts themeselves, but I may need to be educated further………

  3. Sure … just to pick on an example about coal-to-liquids, the report states as fact:

    “West Virginia’s abundant coal supplies can be mined and used to help counter foreign oil
    dependency, meet increased long-term energy growth demands and improve national
    energy security.”

    But, the authors are selectively presenting certain “facts” and omitting others that are actually more important … for example, it is a “fact” that using coal for liquid fuel will produce twice the level of greenhouse gases as conventional petroleum. This NY Times graphic explains it,

    I share your concern that coal issues be framed appropriately based on facts. But I also think that when it comes to saving one’s homeplace — be it a house near a mountaintop removal mine or the entire planet — that a little emotion is an OK thing.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have cited this particular report as an expert document on this subject. A better one is Coal Power in a Warming World, by the Union of Concerned Scientists, available here,


    • Thanks, Ken. This looks like a good resource. I appreciate you posting it here for me and others.

      Just to clarify, I never cited this report as an expert document. I cited it as one that takes on a difficult issue for many people and presents facts in, yes, a dispassionate way. Your clarification on the coal to liquids pollution issue is important yet seems to reiterate the original point, so it still looks to me like the report is predominately solid.

      It’s a matter of opinion and not right or wrong on the emotion issue. I think it’s fine to feel what we feel in this very intense issue. I almost didn’t write about it at all, because just saying c-o-a-l gets all sides so upset these days, and as you say, often for good reason.

      But a policy paper can’t “go there” and be credible. Individuals can. Here’s to individuals leading with both their hearts and minds on this one. I’m very glad to have your depth of knowledge checking in on this. I just wanted to say primarily we need to stop thinking 100 years is a long time. It just isn’t on this one.

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