Monstrous Carbuncle

Tim Flannery

  • Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese
    Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.99, February 2004, ISBN 0 434 01333 1

Edward I knew a thing or two about coal. He hated its stink, and in 1306 banned the burning of it in his kingdom, threatening offenders with ‘great fines and ransoms’. There are even records of coal-burners being hanged, tortured or decapitated (sources don’t agree on the punishment: it’s possible all three were applied). After reading Barbara Freese’s book, you get the feeling that vigorous punishments may again be inflicted on coal-burners, for their impact on both human and planetary health is becoming dire. Freese is the assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota, and spent 12 years prosecuting companies for the damage they do to public health.

The English were the first Europeans to use coal on a large scale, once their supplies of wood were exhausted, and for centuries the bishops of Durham and the priors of Tynemouth controlled the coal trade, their workers digging it from seams in outcrops along the Tyne. In the Middle Ages people had no idea what coal was made of. Many miners believed it was a living substance that grew underground, and nothing encouraged its growth like a good smearing with dung. Perhaps it was the arrival in London of boats full of faecal carbon that fuelled King Edward’s dislike of the stuff, but more likely it was the associations between coal and disease – or even the devil – that caused the ban, for at the time the English were highly suspicious of the black rock. They knew it came from underground, and the stench of brimstone (sulphur) that accompanied its burning was an unpleasant reminder of the torments of the infernal regions. Yet it was the association with disease that was most off-putting. The word carbuncle comes from the Latin for ‘coal’; and the most frightful symptom of the plague – black swellings of the lymph nodes, known as buboes – looked suspiciously like they consisted of coal fragments. Such carbuncular associations were fanciful, but modern research has revealed irrefutable links between coal and death. The US Environment Protection Agency estimates that more than 30,000 American citizens are killed each year by power-plant emissions, the vast majority from burning coal. That, Freese reminds us, is almost as many as die on the roads, and twice as many as are murdered or fall victim to Aids.

Newcastle coal was formed during the Carboniferous Period, between 360 and 290 million years ago, and is made up of the fossilised remains of plants. Back then, the Newcastle region was a swamp close to the equator crowded with bizarre tree-sized plants that looked like giant mosses. The atmosphere was dense with carbon dioxide, and on land metre-long spiders and dragonflies moved through the humid, stifling forests. Since then, dead plant-matter has been finding its way into sediments, which movements of the Earth’s crust have carried deep underground and incorporated into rocks. The carbon buried in this way originally came from the atmosphere, and its removal has over the aeons led to our modern climate. There is so much carbon buried in the world’s coal seams that, should it find its way back to the surface, it would make the planet hostile to life as we know it.

Once English miners had removed the surface coal, they had to drive tunnels deep into the earth to continue their business. ‘It is hard to imagine a workplace more dismal and dangerous than a 17th-century coal mine,’ Freese says. ‘Dark, damp, cramped and chilly, the mines had ceilings that could collapse on your head, air that could smother you, poison you or explode in your face, and water that could rush in and drown you or trap you for ever.’ Many of the miners were children and the mines were said to be haunted by demons, elves and goblins. There were as many real enemies in this underground world, and three of the most dreadful were known as choke damp, white damp and fire damp. Choke damp is carbon dioxide. Because it is heavier than air, it pools at low points and smothers anything that enters it. There are accounts of miners being killed so quickly by choke damp that they did not have time ‘to cry but once “God’s Mercy”’. White damp is carbon monoxide, which is just as nasty, but far more beguiling; many old accounts inexplicably describe it as having the scent of spring flowers, so it sneakily killed miners as they enjoyed a subterranean reverie. Fire damp is another greenhouse gas: methane. It seeps and hisses out of coal seams, and if it meets a spark or naked flame it can explode violently. Methane has killed countless thousands of miners and in some countries, including China, it continues to kill today. As early as the 16th century, Belgian coal miners had learned how to burn methane off before it could explode. They wore a special linen garment to do so, and one witness described the practice thus:

The miner then draws near to the fire, and frightens it with his staff. The fire then flies away, and contracts itself by little and little; having then expended itself, it collects itself together in a surprising manner, and becoming very small, remains quite still in a corner. But it behoves the man who wears the linen garment to stand over the flame when at rest, always terrifying it with his staff.

In 1661, in Fumifugium, John Evelyn wrote that coal smoke had transformed London into ‘the suburbs of Hell’. Forty years later, Timothy Nourse noted that acid in the smoke was causing London’s oldest buildings to be ‘peel’d and fley’d as I may say to the very Bones by this hellish and subterraneous Fume’. What we know of coal’s impact on the health of London’s inhabitants at this time comes mostly from records compiled by ‘Searchers’, ‘ancient matrons’ who examined the corpses of all who died in the city. It’s hard to say exactly what carried many people off, for the Searchers attributed deaths to such causes as ‘Affrighted, Grief, Itch, Piles, Planet, Rising of the Lights’ and, perhaps most mysteriously, ‘Mother’. What is clear from their records, however, is that around a quarter had perished from lung diseases brought on in large part by the city’s polluted atmosphere.

London’s problems remained unrectified for centuries. They were seen, perhaps, as the price of progress – and eventually Londoners even began to take a perverse pride in them. Not everyone was complacent, however. In 1903, at the age of 80, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, wrote a book in which the subject loomed large. After a rousing condemnation of the effects of the air pollution caused by coal burning, he rounded on the perpetrators and their political supporters:

It has been the consideration of our wonderful atmosphere in its various relations to human life, and to all life, which has compelled me to this cry for the children and for outraged humanity . . . Let everything give way to this . . . Vote for no one who says: ‘It can’t be done.’ Vote only for those who declare: ‘It shall be done.’

The 20th century saw the burning of coal, at least in parts of the developed world, become a somewhat cleaner process. Sulphur dioxide, the cause of acid rain, was removed from smoke in the stacks of many power plants, though carcinogenic particles as well as carbon dioxide continue to be emitted. In America, as the pressure for change mounted, the coal lobby grew in strength as well as in its reckless disregard of the public good. As dependency on foreign oil has increased, the US has come to look on coal as, in Freese’s words, ‘the emblem of American energy independence’. Air-quality laws have been loosened and delayed, and today the US is increasingly seen as a renegade nation in the international battle to save the planet from global warming. As a result of its retrograde laws, the country is full of geriatric coal-fired power stations which are maintained because new plants require pollution control mechanisms. Even though these superannuated models are highly inefficient and polluting, they are replaced piecemeal and continue to operate, all to avoid the expense of upgrading.

Today, the great problem facing both the planet and the coal industry is global warming. Caused principally by emissions of carbon dioxide, it will, if nothing is done, see the Earth’s temperature rise by 6°C by the end of this century. This rate of climate change is around a hundred times faster than at any time in the Earth’s history and, if not slowed, will within decades carry the planet into a climatic regime not seen for many millions of years. The list of disasters such a change could bring about is so long that, in one way or another, the result will inevitably be catastrophic: China or Australia may run out of water; Europe and North America may be plunged into a new ice age; ice caps could melt, raising the oceans by several metres; violent super-storms could rage in previously peaceful regions. Lesser consequences are already unavoidable, for such is the inertia built into global warming that, no matter what we do, most of the world’s coral reefs will be dead in a couple of decades, while mountain rainforests and alpine meadows around the world will vanish.

The coal industry’s solution to these immense problems is geosequestration: storing carbon dioxide underground. This entails capturing CO2 at the smokestack, which no existing technology can do. The gas – which is three times as voluminous as the coal burned – must then be transported, in some cases thousands of kilometres, to geologically stable regions. Then it must be compressed and pumped under high pressure deep into the earth, where it will have to be monitored into the future to make sure it stays put. Should it ever leak out, anything it pools around will be smothered by industrial-scale doses of choke damp. On top of all this, coal companies will need to find someone to insure them against the risk of leaks. It’s hard to believe that electricity produced using this technology could be economically competitive with wind and solar power; yet the US and Australian governments are spending billions on developing it.

Some visionaries of the coal industry think this government largesse is unnecessary. Fred Palmer, a retired head of Western Fuels (a US coal-burner), believes that the Earth’s atmosphere ‘is deficient in carbon dioxide’, and welcomes the idea of CO2 levels of around 1000 parts per million. This would raise global temperatures to a degree that virtually all climatologists would call disastrous; but this doesn’t worry Palmer, who can see only an eternal summer in the prospect of climate change. The reality is that within the working lifetime of people reading this review, the fate of our planet will be decided.