Coal comeback conceivable, controversial

The world might be on the verge of a new leading energy source.

Projections presented by the National Mining Association predict coal will become the world’s leading energy source by 2015. The projections made coal business experts and professionals excited for southern Illinois’ future, but others are worried whether coal is practical, or even safe, for the environment.

Phil Gonet, Illinois Coal Association President, said the projections could greatly impact the state’s economy.

“I would expect that coal production and mining jobs would continue to grow in Illinois,” he said. “In fact, in the last two years, we’ve seen quite a bit of growth in coal exports.”

Gonet said the state has gone from three million tons of coal exported in 2010 to a projected 15 million tons in 2012. The demand has opened coal mines within the state in the past several years, he said, and he believes demand will continue to grow.

Tomasz Wiltowski, Coal Research Center director and a mechanical engineering and energy process professor, said the increased coal use would create many jobs and give the university a chance to

affect coal’s future. “When you go through the

history of this university, you have a lot of faculty extremely active in energy, especially in the coal research,” he said. “It means we will have more opportunities how to show our abilities (and) how to solve our problems.”

While the U.S. might take some time to adapt to larger-scale coal use, Gonet said he thinks the resource holds great export potential and can help other nations.

“Roughly a third of the world does not have electricity,” he said. “There are lots of parts of Africa with no electricity. There are parts of Asia with no electricity and I think if those areas are going to come to a standard of living that we’ve come to know here in the United States … they’re going to need electricity and coal is the cheapest source of energy.”

However, organizations such as Greenpeace oppose coal use as an energy source.

Kelly Mitchell, a Greenpeace coal campaigner, said it does not

necessarily mean coal is projected to become the world’s leading energy source simply because it was projected as such.

“There’s no question that coal is on track to be the biggest threat for the climate, and I think the surge we are seeing in projected coal use worldwide reflects that,” she said. “But I think the important thing to keep in mind is that none of the projects, none of those proposals are set in stone. There’s still a lot of things system activists and governments can do around the world to reduce our use of coal.”

Mitchell said coal still does not use clean methods to mine, transport and use the mineral in an eco-friendly way. Coal use can be harmful to the environment, she said, and it is no longer the U.S.’s cheapest energy source option.

While environmentalists might be intimidated by the coal use prospect, Gonat said there is no need to worry.

“The United States has the most stringent air emissions laws in the world,” he said. “Power plants in the United States emit about half

the emissions that they emitted 20 years ago, so I would say yes, the air is cleaner.”

Illinois coal is high in sulfur content, Gonet said, which requires specific pollution control equipment to use it. He said the equipment is called a scrubber, which removes sulfur dioxide from smokestack gas.

Wiltowski said it is already possible to produce coal with little- to-no harmful environmental effects.

“We actually have a generation unit, which is using coal near zero emissions,” he said. “We can actually dramatically reduce emissions. We can actually catch all those toxic or hazardous materials.”

Though there is technology in place to reduce emissions, Mitchell said coal use is still a bad idea.

“There are some technologies that can limit (emissions), but that definitely misses the big picture,” she said.

Wind and solar energy has recently made great strides in Illinois, she said, and it is a more practical energy source.

Some students support the idea of using coal as an energy source, especially if it doesn’t hurt the environment. However, others are not so enthusiastic.

Maggiemay Pelagio, a freshman from Chicago studying pre-physical therapy, said she thinks coal use is fine, and she could see it being integrated into everyday use more often, but she would not eliminate some energy sources.

“It would be practical to use it instead of gasoline,” she said. “But natural gas – I think we should keep that.”

Jake Duck, a sophomore from Shelbyville studying forestry, said he believes coal has its uses as a cheap energy source, but is still harmful to nature.

“It has it’s bad parts for the environment, but … it’s the only form of (cheap) energy we have right now.”

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