Outlawing coal, as EU policymakers seem intent on doing, would be a divisive and backwards step for humanity, writes Brian Ricketts.
Brian Ricketts is the secretary-general of Euracoal, the European Association for Coal and Lignite.
EU policy aims towards zero environmental impact. Yet, man has always had an impact. How else could we survive the destructive forces of nature in ill-suited climes? Farming changed the landscape, as did the exploitation of timber for homes, ships and fuel. Today, fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – meet 85% of our energy needs and allow us to prosper like never before. Our food comes from mechanised farms fuelled and fertilised by fossil fuels.
Before the Industrial Revolution, only the rich enjoyed the best of what we now take for granted: warmth, sanitation, light, entertainment and travel. Most lived lives of servitude, but that changed with cheap and abundant fossil fuels. The annual average per capita electricity consumption in the EU of 5,500 kWh is like having a small horse or eight servants working for you 24/7 (630 W). A team of 50 horses will pull your car through beautiful countryside. Progress fuelled by hydrocarbons means that we live longer, healthier, more productive and happier lives.
Abundant energy for all means using the cheapest sources as efficiently as possible. Moreover, the wheels of industry are oiled by competitive energy. Yet EU policy is to use more expensive energy: renewable sources such as wind and solar which require 100% back-up. Europe has mistakenly picked these as winning technologies and is building a second energy system that doubles costs.
Technological progress will deliver cheaper, cleaner energy. The ITER fusion project in Cadarache will mimic the sun, coal gasification offers much potential, and other potent new sources may emerge. Yet EU policy is second guessing progress and the rational choice of consumers. For transport, coal is a fuel of the past – it was surpassed by oil. For electricity generation, coal reigns supreme: 42% of global supply, a share that is rising as developing countries electrify their people out of energy poverty. Coal is also used to produce steel, cement, fertilisers, chemicals and plastics.
In the affluent West, we face dire warnings about climate change. We know that we will have to adapt to a warming climate. We also know that by using fossil fuels, we can lead productive lives in even the most inhospitable places. More progressive and cheaper energy use might be the better policy response if we are to continue on our fantastic technological journey. Stopping that journey seems like a route back to servitude.
The EU coal industry supports a quarter of a million well-paid jobs and provides 28% of our electricity, rain or shine. Indigenous coal production gives us energy independence. There are those who oppose coal. The gas industry covets coal’s 28% share, but cannot compete. Yet EU policy is being manipulated in favour of gas, even though most gas is imported and adds nothing to the EU economy. In 2013, we spent around €500 billion or 4% of GDP on energy imports: 96% on oil and gas, less than 4% on coal imports from reliable countries.
Well-funded green NGOs vilify the coal industry. They employ professionals who wear smart suits and carry smartphones, the products of fossil fuels; 80% of everything that comes out of China began as a lump of coal. Many seem happy to take the benefits of fossil fuel use, while telling us to stop producing. Some NGOs are funded by the European Commission and some by the gas industry, so it is hard to view them as impartial or as representing civil society.
The remaining potential of Europe’s coal resource far exceeds that of its oil and gas. In the EU, we exploit coal with technologies that have seen sulphur emissions reduce by 80% since 1990. Carbon emissions from the newest coal plants are 30-40% lower than from the old plants still found in some member states. Improving the efficiency of coal plants around the world would reduce carbon emissions by more than the Kyoto Protocol targets and conserve our energy resources.
Looking ahead, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is now a proven technology, thanks to the Boundary Dam plant in Canada. It is the only technology that would make a material difference to carbon emissions over the next thirty years. Unfortunately, leaders have not persuaded citizens anywhere that the cost of CCS is a cost worth paying, despite it offering a cheaper route to reduced emissions than some of the mature renewable technologies that are still heavily subsidised. We will continue to use coal to meet electricity demand; worldwide, 1.3 billion people still live without this basic lifeblood of a civilised society.
We will continue to use coal in the EU; economics will trump ideology and the coal industry will continue to deliver performance improvements. Outlawing coal would be a divisive and backwards step for humanity. Technological progress is the only way forward and coal offers progress.
Brian Ricketts (Euracoal)