Tag Archives: coal

Old King Coal

Chinese-coal-miners_2-450x299There is a tendency among critics in the growing Energy Humanities camp to focus almost exclusively on the symbolic politics (and geopolitics) of petroleum. This reflects, I think, the way that the current dominant mode of resource exploitation shapes our consciousness, regardless of differences of time and space.

Yet while oil may be the fuel that drives US culture – and US imperialism – it is by no means the dominant fossil fuel. Coal is still incredibly central to global energy politics, notwithstanding its association with outmoded c25_00RTX1WQmodes of production and outmoded moves of working class organizing in the developed world.

An absolutely crucial and heartbreaking series of articles in The Guardian discusses the impact of coal on rural communities in contemporary China. Coal is still very much powering economies, and wrecking lives, in the present.

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Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.


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Bad COP19

imagesUNFCCC’s COP19 in Warsaw, Poland is the most corrupt climate meeting yet. This is saying a lot. As I recorded when attending COP17 in Durban, previous COPs have see wholesale backtracking from the Kyoto Accord, the only international agreement mandating reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. But COP19 sets a new record for corporate influence.

Perhaps most egregiously, the Warsaw Climate Summit is scheduled in tandem with the World Coal Association’s Coal and Climate Summit. Coal, of course, is the most polluting form of fossil fuel. All burning of coal should cease immediately if greenhouse gas emissions are to be mitigated.

This overlap between the Climate Summit and the Coal Summit is no accident. The confluence was actually organized by the Polish government, which obtains around 80% of its power from coal.

In addition, as Pascoe Sabido of the European Corporate Observatory explains in today’s episode of Democracy Now, COP19 was explicitly sponsored by a bevvy of polluting corporate behemoths, from auto manufacturer BMW to Emirates Airlines.

These corporate-funded meetings will never be a venue for climate justice. Makes me wanna holler!

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Old King Coal

imagesCoal is the big dirty secret of our time. When we turn on our sleekly designed iPads and MacBooks, we seldom consider that the energy used to power these totems of the global economy is derived from fiery combustion of the fossilized remains of massive Paleozoic plants. Nor do we often think about the human labor or environmental toll associated with the consumption of power today.

How else can one explain advertising campaigns such as that associated with the Nissan Leaf, an electric car which, as its name suggests, is represented as an embodiment of pristine nature despite the fact that its power source is more environmentally destructive than gasoline?

Although coal-fired power plants provide more than 50% of the electricity currently consumed in the US, when they stop to reflect on where their power comes from few Americans think about coal. The tense diplomatic brinksmanship associated with global oil supplies occupies a far more prominent place in news headlines than discussions of coal, yet 35% of the world’s electricity is currently generated by coal power, and developing nations such as China and India bring hundreds of pollution-belching coal-fired power plants online each year.

To consider coal is to step into a time machine that transports us not just back to the origins of terrestrial life, but to the images-1more proximate human inventions and struggles that gave birth to modernity. The sulfurous odor given off by burning coal meant that it was long associated with dark satanic powers. Despite fueling industrial revolutions in countries such as Britain, Germany, and the United States, coal was always regarded with ambivalence and even fear, its life altering energy ineluctably linked to forces of physical and racial degeneration. For much of the last half-century, the Age of Oil, coal has been associated with a bygone time, the era of King Coal. But coal is no longer invisible. As a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change, coal once again appears to hold the key to our collective future.

To stop today’s coal boom, the climate justice movement must make coal’s environmental and political toxicity visible. The campaign against coal can draw strength from the historical memory not simply of the importance of miners in the struggle to deepen democracy in industrialized nations, but also from the specific weaknesses of the coal industry’s infrastructure. Climate and environmental justice movements need to join with workers in the energy sector to choke the infrastructure of coal.

However, as the British film Brassed Off reminds us, workers will fight to retain their jobs in a dirty industry that kills them unless they are offered a clear alternative. The campaign against coal must therefore demand a just transition to a renewable, decentralized energy infrastructure.

We have powerful imaginative resources to mobilize in this regard. After all, the figure of King Coal reminds us that the energy infrastructure created by what Lewis Mumford called carboniferous capitalism has bred rampantly undemocratic forms of corporate oligopoly. Taking power thus implies a radical democratic transformation of both global energy systems and governance. Let us dethrone Old King Coal.

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Carbon Trading Comes To China

china1A recent report by the Asian Development Bank predicts problems for Asian countries resulting from galloping increases in energy needs.

According to the report, Asia consumed 34 percent of the world’s energy in 2010; based on the current growth rate, this figure will rise to 56 percent by 2035, the report predicts.

Serious implications here: Asia’s limited fossil fuel resources mean that most countries there will not be able to produce half of the energy they need by 2035, the report says, adding that Asia will heavily depend on imported fuels, in particular, foreign oil. With only 9 percent of proven global oil reserves, the report says, Asia (excluding Middle East countries) is now on track to almost triple oil imports by 2035. china2

There is likely to be a great deal of global jockeying and rising inter-imperial tensions over oil supplies as a result.

The impact on the people of Asia of all this fossil fuel consumption is also extremely serious. Levels of pollution in Beijing reached record levels this winter. The air is almost unbreathable. In addition, many of the great and growing cities of the region are extremely vulnerable both to water shortages and to flooding and other “natural disasters” resulting from climate change.

china3It is therefore not so surprising to find China experimenting with various green capitalist attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As this article details, the industrial city of Shenzhen recently set up the first carbon trading regime in China. But carbon trading has not worked in Europe, and it is not likely to work in China or Asia in general.

China is trying a variety of other strategies to reduce energy consumption and pollution, but, given its massively increasing power needs, it seems that truly sustainable solutions are not going to constitute a significant part of the solution. As the graph at right suggests, such renewables supply only 0.06% of the nation’s energy needs (as of 2006). Coal supplies a shocking 70% of such needs. Yikes!



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Taking Power

coal1Where will the energy that runs modern societies come from? It is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of this planet hangs on the answer to this question.

The news is mixed on this front. Here in the US, citizens’ movements against killer coal have been surprisingly successful. As Ted Nace explains in his crucial book Climate Hope, the US Energy Department’s drive to build more coal-fueled power plants has been rolled back through citizen action on a local and regional level. In 2007, Energy Department analyst Erik Shuster circulated a document which revealed that more than 150 coal-fired power plants were slated for construction in the coming years. Since then, grassroots movements have managed to block construction of over 2/3rds of these power plants.

The story in other parts of the world is not such a happy one. In particular, in rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India, development of coal power has proceeded quickly in recent years. Nace’s useful site Coalswarm tracks coal development around the world. Some of the world’s most populous countries, with sharply increasing, energy-hungry urban populations are looking to coal to power their vast emerging energy needs in coming years.

For all the gains in the US, in other words, the world as a whole has swung decisively in the wrong direction. It could also be argued that the struggle against coal in the US has been so successful because of the development of other polluting energy sources such as natural gas.

A fundamental question that underlies the issue of energy is who controls power generation. In many places, power companies have been privatized during the last few decades of neoliberal hegemony. The Transnational Institute has just made a powerful film on the privatization of public energy supplies available for public consumption:

Another key resource in thinking these questions of who controls power (in both senses of the term) is Kolya Abramsky’s coal2excellent book Sparking a Worldwide Energy RevolutionIn his work, Abramsky underlines the various struggles among workers who produce energy in various parts of the world, as well as the efforts of citizen movements in rural areas and in the burgeoning megacities of the global South to gain access to clean and affordable sources of power. These struggles are life and death ones on a daily level for many people – think about the number of people who die from various respiratory ailments as a result of burning cheap coal and dung indoors in poor communities around the world.

Such struggles also are key ones for the future of the planet as a whole. Popular democratic control of energy is the linchpin of the transition to a new and better world that lies on our doorstep. Gaining control of the energy commons by breaking our dependence on killer coal and other dirty fossil fuels is a key goal of the revolutionary movement that we must build.

Note: images in this post are from the Beehive Collective’s brilliant work The True Cost of Coal

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Addendum to the Will to Power

After publishing my last post, I discovered that Democracy Now, always on the ball, did a segment about the World Bank’s loan to South Africa for the Medupi power plant.  The segment points out many of the same things that I mention in my post.  In addition, the interview also underlines an additional important point: the ANC also has a significant financial stake in the development of the Medupi power plant.  This means that issues of corruption also loom large along with the environmental issues that I outlined.  Here’s the segment:

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