Tag Archives: coal

The Hazards of Methane and Coal Processing

See the flame? That’s gas flaring at an oil refinery.

Methane emissions and coal mining have received attention from the current Federal government administration. You can read about the regulations and policy here, here, or here. Instead of rehashing all of that, I want to take a look at the hazardous properties of these chemicals. Let’s get a little hazmat’ish today and address the hazards of methane and coal processing chemicals.

First, I breakdown the health and environmental impacts of methane. Methane emissions can be part of the gas flaring at oil and gas production sites. Then I look at a few of the chemicals involved in coal processing. They are the unsaid, and often unknown, part of “clean coal.” Continue reading

Coal, Gas, Methane, and a Local Economy

Dave Johnston Power Plant in Glenrock, WY

Dave Johnston Power Plant in Glenrock, WY with wind turbines in the distance.

Casper, Wyoming is an energy resource-driven town and people are worried about their local economy. I was in town for work and felt the shadow of a down energy economy hovering over the town. Even though I wasn’t in town for energy-related work people wanted to bend the ear of the “environmental guy”. The topics included jobs lost due to a slow natural gas market, cutting coal mine jobs, and the impact of the new methane regulations. Continue reading

Do You Know Where Your Energy Comes From?

Evansville Wyoming wind oil refinery

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Casper, WY.

Coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, mouse running on a wheel? Do you know where your energy comes from? As an environmental professional I take for granted that my electricity come mostly from coal and partly from wind and/or geothermal. My home heat comes from natural gas. I was teaching an environmental class recently and was surprised at questions regarding how much coal is used to power our homes and cities.

If you’re not in the environmental field, but keep an eye on the news, you still may have heard news about the Keystone XL pipeline, oil production booming in North Dakota, T Boone Pickens, or fracking. Do you know these issues are all related to you watching reruns and driving to Costco? If you don’t know what’s powering your TV, don’t worry, it seems many people don’t. Here is your guide to a basic understanding of where your energy comes from and where you can get more information.

The United States energy comes from coal 37%, natural gas 30%, nuclear 19%, hydropower 7%, other renewable 5% (biomass 1.42%, geothermal 0.41%, solar 0.11%, wind 3.46%), petroleum 1%, and other gases < 1%. All of the data presented here and below is from the US Energy Information Administration. To me, the most interesting thing about this data is that solar is only producing 0.11% of our electricity. I assumed much more than that. Despite all the solar panels I see around Colorado, it’s just a blip in the larger energy picture.

That is the US total, but if you live in a state that doesn’t have a nuclear power plant, like I do in Colorado, then your percentages are going to change. In Colorado, 62% of our electricity production comes from coal and 6% comes from wind. Both are nearly double the national average.

Gypsom Biomass

Steam coming from the biomass power plant in Gypsum, CO.

Looking around the country, here is some interesting energy usage in three other states.

  • Pennsylvania generated 40% of its net electricity from coal and 35% from nuclear power in 2013.
  • In Florida, natural gas accounted for 62% of Florida’s net generation, coal 21%, and nuclear power accounted for 12%.
  • In 2013, 70% of Oregon’s net electricity generation was from conventional hydroelectric power plants and other renewable energy resources.

You can see how much it varies from states to state. Here are two good resources to find out exactly, “Where does my energy come from?”

  1. The US Energy Information Administration provides all the state data here.
  2. Even better, the EPA has a Power Profiler site where you enter your zip code and it provides you a break down of your electrical energy sources.
NREL Wind Technology Center

NREL Wind Technology Center along the Colorado Front Range.



Asking Deep Environmental Questions

Freedom Industries Storage Facility on the Elk River. Photo by AP.

Freedom Industries Storage Facility on the Elk River. Photo by AP.

I was asked a couple deep environmental questions while teaching a recent RCRA hazardous waste course. I usually just get questions on topic. The students often don’t get engaged until I tell them a tragic environmental story or two. As an instructor, I love these deeper discussions, enjoy creating an environment to cultivate these discussions, and let the class go at it. They take much more away from the class by having these discussions than if we just discussed the nuts and bolts of RCRA.

The recent West Virginia methylcyclohexane spill was the first one. I presented the topic to discuss the hazards of methylcyclohexane, in context to cross reference their own hazards. One student brought up that the facility had not been inspected since 1991. Now we’ve entered the deep end. The class exploded with their debate on why.

Their first thought is that the company was bribing the regulators and inspectors. The other ideas included, lack of funds by regulatory agencies, bumbling government agencies, the state doesn’t care because the money from the coal business is big business, or the company didn’t do their own checks because the money was flowing in. They’re all correct. Maybe not specifically to this incident, but most environmental incidents can be connected to one or more of these.

The second one comes up more often and it surprises me that it’s such a hot topic for people. It’s the use and proper disposal of compact fluorescent bulbs. It starts with complaints that the government is regulating the type of bulbs they can purchase. Then we go deeper into the pros and cons of reduced energy use and costs versus the disposal of mercury containing bulbs. It usually goes deeper into whether the disposal of mercury into our landfills justifies the reduced greenhouse gasses. I like it when they get upset with me for not having the answer.

A one-day RCRA class isn’t going to have the answers, because there isn’t a solution to satisfy everyone. In fact, the class is often unsettled when they realize that the issue is even deeper than they originally thought. If you can find the perfect balance of science, technology, society, politics, money, and NIMBY, then you win.

Wyoming’s Rich Energy Resources

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Casper, WY.

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Evansville, WY.

I was driving through Wyoming along I-25 between Cheyenne and Casper and it was impossible to miss the rich energy resources available in this state. Just In this 180-mile stretch of highway I passed a few long rail cars carrying coal, two coal power plants, a hydroelectric power plant, several wind farms, and the refinery in Evansville. That’s amazing and that’s just what you see along one highway in the southeast portion of the state.

I initially thought that the energy resources stood out because Wyoming is such a sparsely populated state. That’s partially true. Wyoming has the lowest population of any state and is #1 state in the country for energy production per capita. But I’ve been all over the country and there is no stretch of road that I’ve driven with the amount and range of energy resources that jumps out at you like this. That’s why I was not surprised that Wyoming is the #2 state for total energy production. Texas is #1. (Maybe I haven’t spent enough time in southeast Texas.) Wyoming is #1 for coal production in the US and that is also not surprising. The over 1-mile long coal rail cars are not just seen in Wyoming, but also up and down the Colorado Front Range, where I live, as the coal is transported to power plants in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas.

Throughout the rest of the state you’ll find natural gas, hydrothermal, solar, uranium and precious metal mines. The state is a geologic wonder for beauty, range of features, and complexity and that has lead to it being such an interesting state for our energy resources. Check out the US Energy Information Administration page for Wyoming for more stats and information.

Dave Johnson power plant.

Dave Johnson power plant.

photo 1

Coal rail cars along I-25.