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Howarth of Cornell chooses coal as his transition fuel

Dr. Robert Howarth of Cornell has a grand plan to save the environment, unfortunately before it comes to fruition, he will have severely damaged the environment. In implementing his plan Dr. Howarth has chosen coal as his transition fuel, without mentioning all the pitfalls of that source of energy.  He doesn't like the choice but clearly it is his choice. Quoting Dr. Howarth: "emissions for the typical in-home domestic hot water heater fueled by gas are four-fold, or 400%, higher than from a coal-electric powered modern heat pump in the home". He offers no alternative transition fuel, but you know it gets cold in the Northeast in the winter, and we can't all move to Arizona until 2050 or is it 2060 now (per the plan)?  Please see links in sources and references below.


Hundreds of thousands of mines release vast quantities of methane (CH4)

Mine fires produce horrendous pollution, methane too!

Coal burning power plants, produce vast quantities of soot (soot melts ice!), mercury, oxides of nitrogen, sulfer dioxide. Acid rain from these power plants is killing our trees, our oceans, and depleting our soils of nutrients that should be in our food. Come on, NINE servings of vegetables a day, why do you think that is? The mercury is poisoning our food, yes on land too (herbal tea?).

My trees keep falling over and dying, why, no roots! Acid rain releases aluminum, so unfortunate trees suck it up and die. Dr. Howarth; trees convert CO2 to Oxygen, please stop killing my trees! If you snow ski, or hike, you see dying trees all over the mountain tops in the Northeast.

Acid rain, nitric and sulfuric, is a large source of ocean acidification, not just CO2. Dr. Howarth's dependence on coal assures severe ocean damage.

Don't forget the huge fly ash ponds surrounding coal plants and leaking into streams.

An aside:

I wonder if the huge amount of black soot from our vehicle tires is warming the oceans and melting the polar ice, tire dust is air born and water born, and I don't know about you but I've ground down quite a few tires, so maybe it's not just the CO2, but other factors as well that haven't even been considered yet. The mathematical models are all wrong, they've all UNDERESTIMATED the ice melt rates! So perhaps its not just the CO2 or the methane (CH4).

As the ice melts it will expose ice with much more soot from even dirtier power plants of the past! One clean layer of snow might slow the melt. Get rid of the coal fired (and diesel) soot and maybe we'd get that one clean layer of snow at the poles.  It could be that non-linear of an effect.

Coal Mines:

Dr. Howarth should start at the beginning, coal mines; his research aircraft accidentally flew over one, a mine creating a far larger methane plume than the natural gas rig nearby, it was barely mentioned in his paper. Coal mining is an honorable profession; my grandfather, and uncle, (RIP) were both coal miners. There are 600 active coal mines in the US. There are five hundred thousand abandoned mines in the US. There are hundreds of coal mine fires in the US now. A single coal mine, active or not, releases as much methane into the atmosphere as an average "fracked" natural gas well just opened to the atmosphere; that's day in and day out, and that's been true since we started burning coal! Who knows what a coal mine fire releases, CO, CO2, CH4, Oxides of Nitrogen, the mines all just keep burning; there's one burning in Wilkes-Barre, PA. right now. All the 500,000 abandoned mines are releasing methane at a substantial rate. We'll just keep this up till 2050 when the "plan" is completed.

The Borehole plume

Looking at the link above, the stain on the right side of the Susquehanna river, that's from the borehole used to drain the coal mines so the homes in Wilkes-Barre won't flood, we need that coal to power our heat pumps Dr. Howarth, or do we?

Finally on mines in general, it takes a heck of a lot of mining to create solar cells, many of those mines will be releasing methane! Solar powered bulldozers are a long way off too!

Natural Gas Fuel cells:

Dr. Howarth has also completely forgotten about Natural Gas Fuel cells, a source of electricity, heat for home heating, and hot water, and guess what, clean, demineralized water too! It's called combined heat and power, CHP for short, and it can facilitate decentralizing our electric generation and also provide very reliable power even if there were a grid failure due to a solar event or worse EMP.

Coal fired electric:

There's just too much bad to say.

The worst is the acid rain slowly killing all the trees in the Northeast United States, but, Dr. Howarth has chosen coal as our transition fuel. It would be tough on coal miners, but if the US put its mind to it we could transition from coal fired electric to natural gas in five years and employ those miners in new, far cleaner, safer industries.

There are recent studies suggesting that only 17% of the mercury in our bodies come from food and drink, including fish. Mercury is in the air! And we've been burning coal for a long long time. Another study considers the possibility that mercury may be a cause of ADHD.

Fly ash:

Just like the ashes in your fireplace, well maybe worse.  It is acidic, contains some radioactive material and it seems to leak into rivers next to the coal fired power plants frequently.  There is a lot of it.

Huge fly ash spill

Trucks burning diesel

More soot to melt the ice! Dr. Howarth, at least for now they can't run on electric, and they run way cleaner and last longer on natural gas.

Did you know?

Did you know that today Boston imports LNG (liquefied natural gas) all winter, because they can't get enough gas from their neighbor to the South, Pennsylvania. The entire Northeast except New York has a natural gas shortage in the winter. Unfortunately, effective fear mongering is preventing the Northeastern states from receiving low cost natural gas.

A suggestion:

The latest natural gas fired electricity generation facilities are small, air cooled, and extremely efficient, almost portable! Small natural gas fired electric generation stations could be placed near burning coal mines and the CO2 exhaust could be used to extinguish these mine fires, very slowly eliminating a major source of global warming gases. By the way, these new nat gas generators are using oxygen generators so they will produce no oxides of nitrogen, just water and CO2.

Dr. Howarth's plan is a wonderful dream, but his implementation comes into question, don't you think?

Bob Matheson


Sources & References

The 2050 plan PDF from Stanford  Basically this paper says New York state can be on solar, wind, and hydro power by 2050.  But where's the energy coming from in the transition period.  Howarth says no to natural gas, so it must be coal.  Sorry not a good choice!

The Howarth letter

The paper that started it all.

"Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development."  On page 3 of this PDF one can see part of huge plume from a nearby coal mine.  This plume is barely mentioned in the paper.

An excellent critical review of said paper by Energy In Depth 









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