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The Coal Threat

By Joseph Knight

Coal was one of the main contributors to electricity generation, being a driving force through the industrial revolution, and it is only recently within the last few decades or so that we have started to switch from the use of coal to other alternative sources, driven by an increasingly environmentally conscious society. The Coal industry has since collapsed, with few surviving stations within the UK and abroad.

However, coal is starting to receive attention once again; due to recent technological advances and changing market conditions, which have allowed the process of extracting oil from coal (CTL – Coal to Liquids) to become financially viable.

There are currently still huge stocks of coal still available, which have been previously made redundant. It is estimated that remaining coal supplies may be sufficient to meet energy demands for the next 300 years, (although the accuracy of this is questionable as many nations have not recently assessed their coal reserves). If the coal to oil process were to take off, as a result of escalating oil prices, as currently it is believed that CTL becomes financially viable when oil prices reach in excess of $25 a barrel, it is foreseeable that irrevocable damage would result. This would lead to the point of no return or the tipping point being reached much sooner than anticipated.

Coal to oil extrapolation may never take off, and it is hoped that this is the case, however if the free market conditions were followed, without undue governmental restrictions, it may be likely that the process would be undertaken on a mass scale. Although the use of CTL depends very much on whether there are sufficient remaining coal reserves available to make it a cost effective option.

Promoters of CTL have also made claim that the technology can harness energy from coal in an environmentally friendly way, as contaminants such as sulphur are removed from the coal during the process. Many also point to use of the Carbon Capture and Storage strategy (CCS) as a method of preventing the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, however this is only in the development stage and would suffer from leakage due to unsealed drill holes or by faults and cracks caused by seismic activity.

By refusing to acknowledge the ever present issue of global warming and oil depletion and by desperately trying to retain whatever remaining fossil fuels there are, in an attempt to prolong our high carbon lifestyle will undoubtedly exacerbate the effects of global warming for future generations to come. There needs to be greater emphasis on renewable, environmentally friendly options, if we are to avoid the highly polluting process of coal to oil extraction, which would be seen by many as a step in the wrong direction.

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