Go back 300 million years ago to the middle of the Carboniferous period. We owe a great deal of our energy uses today to the trees and plants that thrived during this period. After millennia of intense heat and pressure these plants were transformed into a precious commodity: coal. Unlike oil, the United States’ coal mines produce the second largest amount of coal per year in the world. At the current rate of coal use, the United States has enough coal deposits to last more than 250 years. However, despite its accessibility and abundance, coal is far from the best method of energy production. Coal mining and production play a huge role in habitat destruction in the United States. Coal mining operations are very harmful to local ecosystems, destroying massive amounts of terrestrial and aquatic habitats each year. Furthermore, coal combustion is dirty; releasing immense amounts of pollutants that contribute to acid rain and global warming. In the last few years, many alternative energy sources have been produced, some more efficient and sustainable than others, to replace coal. Despite the vast amount of research and time spent trying to produce a super-efficient method of energy production, there just isn’t one perfect method that can meet the energy needs of the United States while being cheap and efficient. Coal use as a form of energy production is readily available and easily accessible, but its long-term impacts may be too drastic for our planet to handle.
There are many ecological issues tied to coal mining and combustion, but they all seem to lead back to one main problem: habitat destruction. Some of the sources of habitat destruction are directly tied to coal use, like mining practices and mine run-off. Other sources, however, indirectly lead to the loss of habitat. For instance, coal combustion is a major source of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. These two gases are greenhouses gases, which mean that they influence global warming and climate change. Also, these gases react with other elements in the atmosphere to create sulfuric and nitric acid which contribute to acid rain. Whether directly or indirectly connected to coal use, these effects can potentially lead to massive amounts of habitat loss both in the United States as well as globally.
Mountaintop removal is a mining strategy used prevalently in the Appalachian Mountains and is the most obvious cause of habitat destruction. The details of mountaintop removal are exactly what the names suggest: the entire top of a mountain is removed to access the coal veins beneath. The first step in preparing an area for mining is burning down the vegetation and uprooting any tree trunks and root systems. Demolition crews, then, use explosives and enormous machines called draglines to remove anywhere from 800 to 1000 feet of material to expose the coal veins. The draglines are massive machines that can be as large as a city block and remove 100 tons of material in one load (Schmerling 2009). According to the Sierra Club, mountaintop removal will destroy over 2000 square miles of Appalachian forests, harming more than 240 species in the area, by the end of the century (Schmerling 2009). To put this in perspective, 2000 square miles is about the size of Delaware. Also, removing that amount soil increases the risk of flooding and erosion because it takes away obstacles that would normally limit water flow. These issues consequently lead to the pollution of aquatic ecosystems around the mining site. For instance, a flooding event will pick up newly exposed soil and carry it to nearby streams. There, the soil and whatever pollutants are in that soil (i.e. metals or chemicals from demolition and excavation) will be deposited in the aquatic systems (Nazaroff 2001). To date, mountaintop removal has caused the pollution of more than 2000 miles of streams and rivers in the Appalachian Mountains. Mountaintop removal is just one of the various coal mining methods, but it contributes to a substantial amount of habitat destruction.
Along the same lines, air pollution from coal fired power plants is responsible for two separate causes of habitat destruction. The combustion of coal releases many volatile gases and is responsible for the largest emissions of nitrogen and sulfur into the atmosphere (Singer 1991). Air pollution’s first, somewhat nebulous, contribution to habitat destruction is climate change. The nitrogen and sulfur dioxides emitted into the atmosphere by coal combustion are greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. Given enough time, global warming will lead to widespread climate changes like desertification and loss of coral reefs. The second result of air pollution that leads to habitat destruction is acid rain. Acid rain is formed when the nitrogen and sulfur dioxides released from coal combustion react with other elements in the atmosphere to form nitric and sulfuric acids (Woodfall 2011). These acids then attach to water and fall to the ground as precipitation. Acid rain has the greatest impact on aquatic ecosystems like lakes, rivers, and wetlands, by lowering the pH of the water. Acidic water holds aluminum better than neutral water and leads to aluminum poisoning for crayfish, clams, fish, and other aquatic organisms (Woodfall 2011). A similar problem of aluminum reaching toxic levels occurs in terrestrial ecosystems as well. Aluminum toxicity inhibits plants’ ability to take up water and strips the soil of other vital nutrients. Without these nutrients plants are susceptible to damage from extreme temperature changes, insect parasites, diseases, and inhibited reproduction (Woodfall 2011). In short, both of the effects of air pollution lead to habitat destruction by altering the abiotic factors of an ecosystem in such a way that the area is no longer inhabitable.
Despite the fact that so many problems with coal mining and combustion have been discovered and identified, there is very little that can be done at this point in time to correct these problems. This delay is due mostly to a lack in general knowledge of how the planet will react to the changes mentioned earlier. For instance, no one knows exactly how many organisms will be altered by polluted water ways or how severe these reactions will be. Also, because of the vast interconnected ecological relationships between organisms, there is no way to even guess at how negatively affecting one species will alter other species. A familiar example of this occurred in the middle to late 1900’s with the use of DDT as a pest control. It never occurred to anyone that a pesticide meant to reduce mosquito populations would have such a devastating impact on bald eagles. Similarly, one major lapse in knowledge about the ecological issues associated with coal mining and combustion is not having a clear, concrete idea of the relationships between the organisms being harmed. Another major lapse in knowledge about this topic is that where climate change is concerned, there is no way to predict how the biosphere will react to the changes occurring. No, this is not the first time in the Earth’s history that it is experiencing global warming. This is, however, the first global warming event that humans have been present in large numbers for. We have no way of knowing how much impact the greenhouse gases being released from coal combustion are having on the planet’s natural warming and cooling cycles. If humans were not releasing greenhouse gases, would the global temperature be rising as much as it is now? The answer is murky and finding any definite solutions are unlikely. In short, the two main lapses in knowledge are that we do not know how the planet will change due to coal use or how those changes will affect the delicate web connecting all living organisms.
This being said, it is difficult to devise a strategy to effectively correct problems as broad as the ones mentioned above. However, there are some ways to begin to better understand the relationships between organisms. For example, running confined, controlled tests on different environments would enhance our scientific understanding of the effects of various changes in abiotic variables. By conducting separate experiments that study variables like pH of rainwater, atmospheric temperature, and levels of rainfall, we can garner a better understanding of what organisms are affected the most and how severe the effect is of each of the different variables. Also, by running the tests multiple times and selectively including different organisms each time, we can gather some understanding of which organisms influence the lifestyles of others. Another option to begin correcting our lapse of knowledge of these ecological issues is to simply study natural, unaffected ecosystems and the interactions that occur there. For instance, one way to get an idea of how an ecosystem will be affected by the ecological issues mentioned above is to study how the dominant and keystone species respond to the issues. Identifying these pivotal species would allow us to better predict how entire ecosystems might respond to acid rain, climate change, or any of the other issues identified earlier. In short, with issues as widespread as the ones associated with coal mining and combustion, the best way to correct lapses in understanding is to study small-scale experiments as well as unaltered natural environments.
Like many other ecological problems, there is no easy, cut-and-dry solution to the problems caused by the United States’ coal mining and combustion. There are three general approaches to reducing the impacts of coal use on habitat destruction. The first approach is promoting smart, sustainable energy consumption. Reducing energy consumption will lower the demand for energy production, which will, then, reduce coal mining and combustion (Nazaroff 2001). Smart energy practices include purchasing energy efficient appliances, installing better insulation in homes and businesses, and simply turning off electrical devices when they are not in use. The second approach is to correct some of the worst effects of coal mining and combustion. For instance, one way to accomplish this is to use more environmentally conscious mining techniques and to replant forests after a coal vein has been depleted. Also, there are “cleaner” varieties of coal with lower sulfur concentrations that emit less sulfur during combustion (Nazaroff 2001). Similarly, coal fired power plants can retrofit their stacks with more efficient scrubbers to remove particulate matter and gases to cut back on air pollution (Nazaroff 2001). The final approach, alternative energy sources, has often been viewed as much more radical than the first two, but has been gaining momentum and favor over the past few decades. Some examples of alternative energy sources include solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. Natural gas and biofuels represent cleaner burning alternatives to coal combustion (Elliott 2007). However, each of these alternative sources of energy have their own drawbacks and negative impacts on ecology (Elliott 2007). Just as an example, hydroelectric power is achieved by damming rivers and using the power of the flowing water to create energy. While this is a very clean source of energy—meaning that it creates very little waste—the dams interrupt many aspects of aquatic ecosystems (Elliott 2007). In short, there is no perfect solution to correcting the ecological issues caused by coal mining and combustion.
The best solution for mitigating ecological issues caused by coal use is a combination of the three main methods discussed above. The first task is to implement outreach programs to educate the public on smarter, more efficient energy use strategies. This method is simple, but it is often very expensive. Another drawback is that there is no guarantee that the public will adopt these changes. The second strategy will be harder to utilize without government backing. This method requires coal mining companies to only mine low-sulfur coal. Also, regulations on the scrubbers used in coal fired power plants need to be updated and enforced. The third method is the most difficult of the three to execute because many of the alternate energy sources are still being developed and refined. Also, while their energy production is cleaner than coal combustion, most of these alternate sources are extremely expensive to use at large scales (Elliott 2007). Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, each of the alternate strategies incur their own ecological issues. Therefore, the best solution to the ecological issues resulting from coal production is to blend the three strategies together. For instance, begin energy education programs at colleges and high schools, update air pollution codes for power plants, and work out a region-by-region plan for switching to alternate energy sources. The alternate energy sources should be determined based on location because some places are more suited for one strategy over another. For example, Ithaca would be a good candidate for geothermal energy production because it sits above a hot spot in the earth’s mantle. However, given that Ithaca has the third highest number of cloudy days per year in the United States, it would not be cost effective to use solar energy here. To conclude, the best solution to the habitat destruction caused by coal use as an energy source is by combining education, stricter coal production regulations, and cleaner alternate energy sources.
The future of energy production in the United States is very unclear. Coal combustion covers more than half of the United States’ energy consumption and our reserves will not run low for another two centuries. With that kind of security, it is difficult to convince the policy makers and general public how important it is to research less destructive energy production methods. The habitat destruction cause by just one method of coal mining is devastating, but contained and easy to predict. However, the loss of habitat caused by air pollution from coal combustion is global and unpredictable, leaving scientists guessing widely at the possible long-term effects. Thankfully, coal combustion is only one in many energy production methods. Hopefully, in the coming years, we will be able to devise an energy production method that is environmentally friendly, cost effective, and easily accessible.
Elliott, David. Sustainable Energy: Opportunities and Limitations. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Nazaroff, W. W., and Lisa Alvarez-Cohen. Environmental Engineering Science. New York: Wiley, 2001. Print.
Schmerling, Mark. “Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Lays Waste to Appalachia.” Sierra Club (2009). Print.
Singer, Joseph G. Combustion Fossil Power: a Reference Book on Fuel Burning and Steam Generation. Windsor: Combustion Engineering, 1991. Print.
Woodfall, David. “Acid Rain Effects.” Ecosystems. National Geographic. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/acid-rain-overview/>.