Friday, July 20, 2007

The Wrong Fire

The Wrong Fire

July 13, 2007

It is astounding that with all the expensive proposals to combat global warming no one is discussing reducing global carbon emissions by putting out mine fires. Although putting out fires in America would not have a significant effect, putting out fires in China and India would.
So as the former vice president, Al Gore, organizes Live Earth concerts, as Congress ponders raising fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and as Michigan's John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, proposes America's first carbon tax, uncontrolled Chinese coal mine fires are sending millions of tons of carbon into the air.
China loses between 100 and 200 million tons of coal a year — a significant fraction of its production of 2.26 billion tons — to mine fires, according to Holland's International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation. This results in carbon dioxide emissions in a range of between 560 and 1,120 million metric tons, equaling 50% to 100% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline.
It may well be less costly for us to put out the Chinese mine fires than to cut emissions at home.
Second to China is India, where mine fires burn between 3 and 10 million tons of coal annually, with emissions of 15 to 51 million metric tons. Emissions will only grow in the future as China and India expand production of coal to fuel their thriving economies.
As well as the harm done to the environment, mine fires impair access to useable coal in nearby mine seams. That loss of access exceeds in value the loss of the burned coal.
America has smaller mine fires in the coal regions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. Precise national estimates of wasted coal are unavailable, but experts agree that U.S. emissions are a fraction of those in China and India.
China and India are aware of the harm these fires are causing, not only globally, but also locally. The fires pollute air and water, and make vast swathes of land uninhabitable. They would welcome international assistance in putting them out.
Instead, Congress wants to impose billions of dollars of costs on consumers and American industries in order to reduce global warming. The energy bill making its way through Congress would substantially raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars and trucks, decimating the American automobile industry and increasing the unemployment rate in Michigan.
Another idea is cap-and-trade programs. Under these schemes, the government grants credits to favored industries, which then sell them to those who need to produce emissions. This system requires the correct allocation of credits and level of caps to be successful. In Europe, caps were set so high that emissions were not reduced significantly.
A carbon tax, proposed on July 8 by Mr. Dingell, is a more neutral way to reduce emissions. The tax would encourage Americans to reduce consumption of all fossil fuels — petroleum products, natural gas, coal and shale oil. Yet raising taxes is never popular, and few voters trust politicians to offset carbon taxes with reductions in income taxes.
Further, gases other than carbon contribute to global warming — so why stop at a carbon tax? Congress could copy New Zealand's new flatulence tax on sheep and cows, designed to reduce emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas. New Zealand's Treasury will collect $5 million a year.
Carbon offsets, often "feel-good" measures such as planting trees or cleaning the ocean, are an increasingly trendy way of reducing global carbon emissions. Vice President Gore, defending the size of his residence, said that he purchased carbon offsets, and Senator Clinton supports funding for new carbon sequestration technologies.
But the most efficient offset would be extinguishing international mine fires, and neither Mr. Gore nor Mrs. Clinton are proposing research for this. A Utah expert in mine fires, Steven Feldman, notes that most of the research in extinguishing mine fires is taking place not in America but in Holland and Germany.
For many years, workable technologies to put out long-burning mine fires were not available. Flooding, excavating, and flushing with wet sand and gravel were all ineffective. However, new techniques are being developed.
One technology was highlighted by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in a paper on using nitrogen enhanced foam to put out fires. The foam successfully extinguished a fire at Pinnacle Mine near Pineville, W. Va.
The method was developed by entrepreneurs, Mark Cummins and Lisa La-Fosse. Their firm, CAFSCO, hopes to use the technique to put out other fires, both in America and abroad.
Ms. LaFosse reports that the merit of nitrogen foam is that it contains no oxygen.
"Everything that has been tried before has failed to reach the critical areas of combustion near the irregular roof and into the cracks and crevices leading into nearby coal seams. Other types of foam that have been injected into the combustion area include large amounts of oxygen in the bubbles of the foam, which feed the fire and increase intensity."
We don't yet know definitively, despite much assertion, whether global warming is a man-made phenomenon or simply the product of lengthy climate cycles. But if we're going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, let's tackle the biggest culprits first — the mines burning out of control in China and India.

Ms. Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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