The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2017

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The Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 08/15/08

Unlike these natural events the pollution from energy generation builds up continuously, and so the earth cannot recover. The solid waste has to be deposited somewhere, often in the sea, hazarding aquatic life. The atmospheric waste produces acid rain and climate change. The acid rain causes plants and trees to weaken and die, and renders lakes sterile and kills the fish. By the 1980s, nearly 4,000 lakes in Scandinavia were dead and 5,000 had lost most of their fish.

It has been suggested that the carbon dioxide, which is the principal ingredient in atmospheric pollution, could be sequestered, that is put into liquid form and pumped into empty oil wells. This process is expensive and could increase the price of coal by a factor of two or three. Even if this were done, there would still remain the hazards of the other atmospheric discharges.

The vicinity of a coal power station is hardly an object of beauty. The waste from burning the coal is usually stored nearby and forms large, unsightly, and dangerous slag heaps. They are dangerous because after heavy rain they can collapse, overwhelming nearby buildings. This happened some time ago in the Welsh village of Aberfan. The slag flowed over the village school, killing over a hundred children.

Coal is by far the most hazardous of the energy sources. Mining is dirty and dangerous; over 80,000 miners were killed in accidents from 1873 to 1938. A detailed study [4] found that about forty miners are killed to produce a thousand megawatt years of energy, and many hundreds of thousands have had their health permanently impaired by silicosis and other diseases. For all these reasons it is imperative to phase out coal power stations as soon as possible.


The world consumption of oil increased very rapidly throughout the twentieth century, partly because it is easier to extract from the earth than coal and partly because it is easier to transport by pipeline or tanker from well to power station. It also has a higher calorific content than coal. In 1900 the world oil production was twenty million tons, 470 in 1950, and 3400 in 2000.

The safety of oil occupies an intermediate position with about ten deaths per thousand megawatt-years. This is mainly due to oil well fires. There were 63 accidents in the period 1969–1986, with an average of fifty deaths per accident.

Oil is serious threat to the environment because tankers are sometimes wrecked and the oil discharged into the sea, killing fish and seabirds, and destroying marine plant life. The polluted area soon recovers and it is worth mentioning that more oil pollution is caused by tankers cleaning out their tanks.

The main disadvantage of oil is that world oil production is expected to peak in about ten years and thereafter fall. This may be offset by new discoveries, although no large oilfields have been discovered since 1980. The demand for oil continually increases. Burning oil also produces large quantities of carbon dioxide, just like coal. Furthermore, oil is a valuable chemical with many applications principally as airplane fuels and in the pharmaceutical industry, and so burning it is very wasteful. A further complication is that the bulk of the remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East.

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