A Canary in a Mine

Mining?  Does it still exist in the US, or anywhere for that matter?  After reading a recent article on mining, my mind started to wonder.  It brought me back to the movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, about the life of Loretta Lynn and the hardships of mining in Kentucky.  This was my first introduction to mining.  Growing up in the Deep South mining was only in the movies or so I thought.  Yes, I remember seeing freight cars carrying coal, but to where I would often ask my father. And frankly I never gave mining much thought except for a canary in the coal mine. Not fully understanding what the phrase meant, I, like many, went on about my life as this was, and is in a distant world. The phrase means a canary is released in the mine. If dangerous gases exit, the canary will die warning the miners to exit quickly.

Mining dates to colonial times, the late 1760’s. There is a debate amongst sources which colony mining originated in. No, it is not Kentucky or West Virginia. Honestly, I thought these were the only two states that had coal mines. Who would have guessed? Rhode Island and Pennsylvania own this claim to fame.  Several other colonies followed.

For most of us coal is a dirty, black sedimentary rock that is put in naughty people’s stockings at Christmas and possibly in the non-gas BBQ pits.  Very few of us realize that coal is responsible for a lot more than BBQ pits and electricity generation.  Lack of coal would affect global transportation – trucking, railroad and sea, and international trade.  Coal can be converted to diesel fuel through a distillation process at refineries; therefore, no diesel and bunker fuel (any fuel used on board a ship) would mean large scale international trade would shut down.  Stock markets around the world may possibly stop to keep the economy from collapsing.  Yes, a shutdown is rare, but it does happen.

The US is the number one or two mining producer in the world for multiple commodities such as gypsum, limestone, salt, phosphate, and sulphur. And what is missing? Coal. The number one country in the world for mining coal is China. In the US, the deepest coal mine is a surface coal mine in Wyoming; however, this is one of the largest deposits in the world and located in the Black Thunder Coal Mine in the Powder River Basin.

Due to COVID19 and the decrease in imported Russian gas to countries around the world including the US, coal is making a comeback. The US has 229 operational coal-fire powdered stations which generates 21.9% of the US electricity. Coal has also made a major comeback in Europe due to the war.

However, because of the backlash of coal being environmentally dirty, this presents a great case for producing more natural gas (NG). Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel around. When burned, NG produces mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor which are the same substances emitted when a human exhales. Until more natural gas is produced, coal is here to stay.

*www.eig.gov/coal (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

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