a reality whose environmental and health impacts we need to face up to and address urgently. With 66% of our energy needs being met with fossil fuels, we have some way to go before we reach a low carbon and renewable energy mix¹. We are all too aware of the direct costs of consuming fossil fuels – when we pay our energy bills or fill up our car with gas – but we seldom consider the indirect and perhaps more long-term costs of fossil fuels. And this is truly bizarre if one considers carefully the true costs of fossil fuels.
If the true cost of fossil fuels was captured in our monthly bills, we would have switched to renewable sources of energy a long time ago.
The good news is that we are not starting from zero in terms of our transition towards a sustainable and low carbon future. It is undeniable that there is increased awareness regarding the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Despite climate sceptics or flippant comments that climate change is some sort of hoax, people know what climate change is, how it has come about and what we need to change. Across developed countries in much of North America and Europe awareness rates are well over 90% of respondents². Awareness is certainly crucial, but climate change is not the full story when it comes to accounting for the true cost of the continued use of fossil fuels. The environmental impacts of extracting fossil fuels are often dismissed. In reality, however, extraction of fossil fuels impacts local communities in a disproportionately high way but it also damages local ecosystems in ways that impact our biodiversity more widely and our planet’s ability to protect itself from the effects of climate change, an issue perpetuated from the use of fossil fuels. A vicious circle indeed!
Harmful ways of fossil fuel extraction
Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas and oil. They can be found underground below both land and sea either in a solid rock-like form, or as gas or liquids. Depending on their physical state and location, they are extracted from the ground either via drilling (for liquid or gaseous fossil fuels) or mining (reserved for extracting solid fossil fuels)³.
Mining, as most of us can imagine, involves extracting resources by digging, scrapping, or otherwise exposing buried resources. Coal is extracted through different types of mining that carry a variety of environmental consequences, a lot of which carry onerous health implications. The rest of this article focuses on bringing the environmental impacts of mining to the surface.
Depending on where the coal is located, different techniques are applied to extract it. If close to the ground surface, surface mining is used as this is effective for shallow deposits. This is a highly invasive technique which radically changes the landscape. The other technique is underground mining, used to extract deep coal deposits, which carries a series of dangers in terms of workers’ health and safety in addition to environmental concerns³. In the U.S., there were 77 fatalities in underground mines from 2010 to 2013³ whereas no one has forgotten the 2014 Brazilian Samarco mining dam collapse which killed 19 people, polluted a river and devastated livelihoods⁴. Miners are also often suffering from chronic health disorders, such as black lung disease; these conditions can be fatal shortening people’s lifespan.
These very bleak points aside, underground mining may not seem as damaging to the environment and land. But here again there is more than meets the eye: underground mines, especially when abandoned after use, are at great risk of collapsing or gradually subsiding. The reason is that mines use columns and other support structures to ensure that the ground above does not collapse so, that miners can work on extracting the coal. But when the mine closes down those support structures are taken out, too. This affects the land and broader landscape but also surface and subsurface water flows.
For example, if active and abandoned mines are not properly managed, water that flows through them can become highly contaminated with heavy metals or become acidic with detrimental effects for both plant and animal life.
The problems with surface mining
Surface mining comes with a different set of impacts as it involves removing the overlaying soil to access the coal below, devastating local environments. Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive form of surface mining as it involves stripping all trees and other vegetation from peaks and hilltops, and then blasting away hundreds of feet of the earth below⁴. This process results in a range of environmental impacts from having huge volumes of excess rock and soil dumped into adjacent valleys and streams, altering their ecosystems and diverting the natural flow of streams to coal removal sites being left with poor soil. Needless to say that local vegetation and biodiversity suffer in particular given the radical change in landscape which effectively destroys habitats for a range of species and makes it almost impossible for nature to regenerate. The U.S. EPA reports that as of 2010, mountaintop removal coal extraction had buried nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams, some of the most biologically diverse streams in the country.
But the environmental impacts often create health and safety hazards for the local communities. Surface mining can cause mudslides, landslides, and flashfloods which is a threat to human life and property. Moreover, depending on the chemical makeup of the coal deposit, mines can pollute local drinking water sources with toxic chemicals like selenium, arsenic, manganese, lead, iron, and hydrogen sulfide. If those drinking sources serve other communities, then the impact is much more extensive.
So all in all, coal extraction, cheap as the process itself may be, is actually very costly to our environment and health. The two are as always inextricably linked. So what is the solution? If the market and economic operators inaccurately reflect the true costs of coal extraction, then regulatory tools and incentives need to be put in place to rectify this and steer investment in alternative energy sources which do not incur these costs.