The leading environmental groups in the U.S. are for one reason or another against coal.
There’s the very uncomfortable fact, however, that every two tons of steel produced necessitates one ton of coal.
Those activists with knowledge of the chemistry of smelting raw ore into steel are aware that, aside from minuscule experimental quantities, forging iron requires hydrocarbons —either coal, firewood, gas, or oil — and have an answer for how to prevent world civilization from crashing should coal shipments be derailed to steel mills.
"Switch to natural gas," informed and level-headed ecologists will respond.
That seems at least a plausible answer too.
Depending on whose accountant is calculating the figures, there’s a case to be made that methane could be actually cheaper to use than coal (coke) in steel-making.
Peter Warrian, a steel expert at the University of Toronto, has predicted that the natural gas process "will replace blast furnaces within the next decade." Again, that’s not a prediction made based on bureaucrats and protesters demanding changes that may or may not be possible, but due to the normal and customary market forces that prevail in any industry regarding any product.
Last year 1.7 billion metric tons of steel were fabricated worldwide — 71% of that steel was made using traditional blast furnace methods with coal, so as the remainder indicates, the industry is already making use of natural gas to a sizable extent.
The prospect of the free market directing steel-making away from coal should hearten anti-coal environmentalists, and one might naturally expect them to be big supporters of substituting natural gas to fill the void created if coal is left in the ground, as they have advised for so long.
The Sierra Club, among the foremost environmental groups in the USA, is a quite adamant opponent of coal. Their program, "Beyond Coal," has very plain campaign goals: “We’re trying to close all the coal plants in the U.S."
With their strident stand taken against coal the Sierra Club might reasonably be assumed to be a great backer of swapping out coal for natural gas in steelmaking. That’s the only other option aside from going back to the antique fuel of yesteryear, firewood and charcoal.
The U.S. certainly has mind-boggling reserves of natural gas, enough to take on the task of smelting America’s steel. The U.S. Energy Administration in 2016 estimated that supply at approximately 2 and one half-trillion cubic feet, sufficient at today’s consumption rate to meet the nation’s energy needs for the next century.
The paradox though is that the Sierra Club is no fan of natural gas extraction either. Two thirds of our nation’s natural gas is produced by hydraulic fracking, and they’ve made their position against fracking even clearer than their aggressively negative thumbs-down on coal.
"The Sierra Club is opposed to fracking. Period."
So says its executive director, Michael Brune. No Fracking, period, is unambiguous.
So that leaves the matter in a very inexplicable limbo. Environmentalists who wish to end coal mining altogether are left with the only option of advocating substituting natural gas for coal in steelmaking, but the hardly logical "Catch-22" is at the same time the method by which that gas is acquired they’ve already weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Environmental organizations appear to have opted for a third course, one which would disempower the United States, casting it into the category of a vulnerable and dependent nation, one which simply doesn’t produce its own steel. Their silent yet obvious position seems to be that other countries should make it — out of sight and out of mind.
A nation which must purchase its steel from abroad — relying on happenstance and the vagaries of history to determine whether its suppliers are allies, neutrals or adversaries—is a poor, hamstrung and dangerously weakened nation since steel is a strategic commodity. There is no vital component of modern society, in agriculture, infrastructure, technology, industry, military or medicinal, which doesn’t collapse the minute steel vanishes.
Aircraft carriers, tanks, cannons, warplanes, bombs, missiles, and firearms are all constructed of steel. Tractors, tankers, railroads, dynamos, skyscrapers, communication towers, and uncountable engines of our economy — indeed the foundation of society —rests upon steel.
The public ought to be very interested for environmental advocacy groups to elucidate how an autonomous and self-sufficient the U.S. can exist if it can only hammer out its weapons and tools at the pleasure of foreign powers who would either deliver steel or withhold it.
Once that frank discussion is opened, candid explanations should be forthcoming as to how natural gas can be heralded as the great substitute for coal, while its acquisition simultaneously protested.
Because at end, the nation cannot exist without steel — made via either gas or coal. Which will it be?
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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