It’s easy to bash coal. There’s no romance in the black rocks that provide about half of the electricity in the United States and about 28.6 percent of the world’s total primary energy. And that bashing has become easier still in recent weeks. A few days before Christmas, at a power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a huge holding pond failed, spilling coal ash contaminated with a variety of heavy metals including arsenic, lead, barium, chromium and manganese over several hundred acres. On December 29, James Hansen, the high-profile NASA scientist who is closely aligned with former vice president Al Gore on the issue of global warming, sent an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in which he called coal-fired power plants “factories of death.”
Add in coal’s other environmental problems—mining by mountain-top removal, air pollution in the form of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals, and heavy loads of particulate—and coal looks pretty bad.
But here’s the problem: some of the world’s biggest economies—and that includes America’s—are heavily dependent on coal. And no other energy source can come close to replacing it, particularly when it comes to cost and scale. A bit of data crunching from the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy yields a list of the most coal-reliant countries. And that list provides some hints as to why achieving a global carbon emissions reduction plan will be so difficult.
It’s not much of a surprise that South Africa is so coal-reliant. South African giant Sasol produces much of the country’s motor fuel from coal. And China’s heavy reliance on coal is well known. What is somewhat surprising is that of the ten most coal-reliant countries, four are members of the OECD: Australia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Turkey. And of those four, the ones that are most important to Europe and the United States are Poland and the Czech Republic.
Poland and the Czech Republic have a long, bad history with Russia. And Gazprom’s recent curtailment of gas flows to Europe through Ukraine has led to a renewed sense throughout Europe – and Eastern Europe in particular – that any reliance on Russia for energy is simply asking for trouble.
Simply put, it is apparent that for countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, coal is going to retain its majority stake in primary energy production for a long time to come. A few weeks ago, during Ukraine’s long spat with Russia over natural gas prices and supplies, a friend of mine, Konrad Sadurski, a journalist who works for Gazeta Wyborcza, a Warsaw newspaper, emailed me. “Thank God you don’t have cold, cold winters,” he wrote, “and you don’t depend on Russian gas.”