Coal is on the Comeback
by Margret Kopala

An edited version of this article was published by the Ottawa Citizen May 21, 2007

Brace yourself for another industrial revolution. Coal is back.

The highly combustible, carbon-rich mineral deposit that was formed over millions of years from decayed plant matter fuelled the first industrial revolution. More than an economic development, it is etched in the psyche of nations where coal mining meant lives lost, labour strife and the genesis of enduring political movements. Canada paid the price in places like Springhill, Nova Scotia and at Hillcrest in Alberta where coal-fired trains carrying new Canadians opened the West.

Today, thanks to rapidly developing clean coal technologies, coal is stoking the next industrial revolution. This is good news because despite centuries of accumulated noxious emissions, coal remains embedded in the deepest reaches of the world’s economies where it is the largest single source of electricity and produces over 70% of the world’s steel. According to Natural Resources Canada, coal mining, coal transportation and coal fired electricity generation (25 stations in 6 provinces) together account for 73,000 jobs and $5.8 billion (1%) of Canada’s GDP.

Better still and unlike oil and gas, it’s cheap, exists in abundance around the world and is evenly distributed. This virtually eliminates any geopolitical risk to energy supply. In North America, coal accounts for 90% of all hydrocarbon reserves which in Canada means an estimated 1000 years of production remain. And unlike nuclear energy, coal presents no storage problems. Neither does it distort the agricultural economy like “subsidized moonshine” (one description for ethanol) does. In all, coal promises to fill the gaps in the less reliable renewable sources and to stretch what remains of the non-renewable.

Clean coal technologies are variations on the themes of capturing, storing, reducing and eliminating noxious emissions such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, as well as the carbon dioxide many believe is responsible for climate change.

Capturing and storing emissions is called carbon sequestration, a process which is being closely studied at the Encana oil fields near Weyburn in southern Saskatchewan. One of 10 recognized projects by the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, the International Weyburn Carbon Dioxide Monitoring Project is a collaboration between 19 research organizations in Canada, the United States and Europe and seven industry members including, most recently, Saudi Aramco.

Because of declining production, Encana developed a C02 enhanced oil recovery project to extend the life of its Weyburn field. Here, C02 is piped from a coal gasification plant in Beulah, North Dakota and injected into the ground where it dissolves and dislodges otherwise inaccessible oil.

According to, captured gases can be dissolved in deep oceans or saline acquafers, converted to solid materials, absorbed by grasses, trees, soils and algae, or injected into geologic formations such as old oil and gas fields or coal beds that cannot be mined. Once injected, the C02 appears to stay put but geologists are still investigating this which is why the Weyburn project, now in its second phase, is so important. So far, too, this technology is expensive and is being used mainly for enhancing oil recovery but full sequestration technology is planned for 2 power plants in the U.S. (FutureGen) and in Scotland, respectively.

In the meantime, EPCOR’s 450 megawatt supercritical coal-fired power plant, the first of its kind in Canada, was opened in March of 2005 near Edmonton. A Library of Parliament paper published in December, 2005, says higher temperatures and pressures in supercritical boilers create a “more efficient and less emissions-intensive process for generating electricity from coal combustion (that can also) be retrofitted to existing coal-fired units”. Supercritical boilers have a proven track record but other technologies such as coal gasification and polygeneration (high pressures and temperatures followed by streaming the byproducts) still need development to eliminate all emissions. Since this paper was written, however, a new technology called Thermo-energy Integrated Power System (TIPS) appears to achieve even this.

Whether climate change, air purity or energy security, clean coal potentially addresses all the issues. Not surprisingly, the world’s keenest jurisdictions are jumping on the bandwagon: British Columbia now requires carbon sequestration of all coal fired projects. In New Brunswick, a Task Force has called for clean coal technology to be the “benchmark” for any new power plant’s performance. In Paris recently, Agence Presse France quoted a senior US official saying “It is the president’s view: technology is the solution” to curb global warming. His top pick? Carbon sequestration.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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