Coal has always been depicted as a huge pollutant with everything from black lungs and smokestacks producing toxic clouds that cause acid rain. News coverage of the industry focused on its contributions to climate change and movies typically depicted miners coated in black dust or trapped underground. While these images are true, they don’t tell the whole story about coal.
At the beginning of its use, coal performed a very important environmental service. During the Industrial Revolution coal made it possible to produce metals, glass, and cement in much greater quantities than ever before. Coal allowed for the use of industrial processes that required heat, without the huge environmental issue of deforestation. During this time, forests in the upper Midwest and the Northeast were being cut down rapidly due to the demand for firewood to heat homes and fuel factories. With the increasing demand for wood, trees weren’t growing fast enough to keep up. Coal was the solution deforestation desperately needed; not only was the black rock cheaper and hotter, it came in a much larger supply.
Coal mines brought rampant deforestation to a standstill, a simple fact. Even though it helped solve a large environmental issue, it also came with its own set of problems. Coal imposes heavy costs on society and releases harmful emissions into the Earth’s climate, it’s nowhere near the cleanest or healthiest energy source. In fact, a report from the Global CCS Institute takes stock of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects around the world as of 2012. The report stated that progress has been slow because no one has figured out how to effectively capture and bury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Coal may not be the best form of energy for the environment, but it is not the environment’s number one enemy either. It began as the solution to deforestation and turned into the cheapest and most depended on energy source today. So the big question isn’t whether coal can ever be “clean.” It can’t, and no energy form will be without its own environmental issues. The real question is if coal can ever be clean enough to prevent local disasters and at least slow down the emission it produces in order to prevent further damaging the Earth’s climate.