By Anne Macharia
Lamu’s fragile ecosystem may well be on the verge of extinction if the government of Kenya permits the construction of the proposed 1,050-megawatt coal plant.
This would be the first coal-fired power generation plant in Kenya and East Africa – a region which is not endowed with vast coal deposits.
Critics argue that the need for this new power plant has been based on inflated electricity demand projections, ignoring available alternatives. The proposed plant also raises issues of compliance with international treaties among them, the 1985 Vienna convention for the protection of ozone layer, the 1968 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources – to which Kenya is a party.
The project is controversial in part due to the risks it poses to Lamu’s delicate marine environment, which many fear will harm its two most vital industries: fishing and tourism. Yet it is also emblematic of Africa’s growing appetite for coal, the most polluting form of power generation, which until now has existed in significant quantities only in the continent’s most industrialized country, South Africa.
According to data compiled by Coals warm, an industry watchdog, more than 100 coal-generating units with a combined capacity of 42.5 gigawatts are in various stages of planning or development in 11 African countries outside of South Africa—more than eight times the region’s existing coal capacity. Nearly all are fueled by foreign investment, and roughly half are being financed by the world’s largest coal emitter: China.
Fossil fuels are of huge benefit to society many would argue that life as we know it could grind to a halt in their absence. However, the environmental, public health, and economic costs of fossil fuel exploration and development can be quite significant, prompting the question of whether the benefits still outweigh these costs.
According to Andreas Kraemer, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, ‘The narrative that new coal is cheap is false. There are all the health, social and environmental costs of coal, even if the coal companies don‘t have to pay them. Even today, solar panels and batteries are cheaper and more affordable than coal-fired power plants. One coal plant is not enough, because you need back-up when the plant is turned off for maintenance, or because of an accident. Large power plants take years to build, they then need large, high-voltage power lines over long distances to take the power to where it is used. The whole investment is very large, very complex, and indivisible.”
He adds that, ‘Everything has to be built before electricity is produced and delivered. Distributed solar, wind, and biogas power come in smaller lots, house by house, village by village. Anyone who can use a mobile telephone or repair a car can also install a solar panel or a small, relatively simple wind turbine. These technologies are within reach of small communities, and empower them to shape their own future. The large-scale investment in coal-fired or nuclear power plants, as is the case in South Africa, are attractive to the – often corrupt – politicians who can get large kick-backs from large projects. Solar panels don‘t corrupt people in the same way ’.
In 2017, a magnitude 4.8 earthquake rattled the small community of Fox Creek, Alberta, approximately 250 km northwest of Edmonton. The area has experienced quakes in the m2.0-3.0 range for the past six months, and researchers suggest it’s related to hydraulic fracking. The Alberta energy regulator has shut down the nearest fracking operation until they can analyze the quake and determine ways to mitigate it.
News of an earthquake in oil and gas territory is not surprising. In British Columbia, there were 231 fracking-related earthquakes between August 2013 and October 2014; the biggest two registered at m4.4 (2014) and m4.6 (2015). The State of Oklahoma has been in the news for years due to its wastewater injection-related earthquakes: 585 in 2014 and 842 in 2015. It’s to the point where science journalists no longer report on new Oklahoma quakes because they occur so frequently:
The impacts of fossil fuel development usually only come to light either when they occur locally or when they’re big enough to make the national news. For example, there’s Canadian Natural Resources’ (CNRL) endless oil spill in Cold Lake, Alberta, where oil has been oozing from ground fractures for over two years and shows no signs of stopping. There’s the 2013 Lac Mégantic explosion, caused by the derailment of a number of tankers transporting crude oil that killed 47 people and demolished a large part of the town.
There’s also the California gas leak, which started in October of 2015 and likely won’t be fixed. Thousands of families have been relocated and two schools have been closed due to the public health effects of the leak. And of course, there’s the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the impacts of which continue to be felt today.
The foregoing is intended to illustrate the vast environmental costs that often accompany the exploitation of fossil fuels, even in the advanced nations.
But while these incidents give us specific examples of the impacts of fossil fuel development, it’s when event data are collated across larger areas that the costs really stand out.
In 2015, High Country News pulled together a map of oil spill incidents across the U.S since 2010. In Canada, the National Energy Board made a similar map of incidents across the country since 2008. A study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers identified locations worldwide where methane gas leaks are being burned off.
These datasets do an excellent job of showing the extent and frequency fossil fuel development impacts and make it clear that there’s much more going on than just those incidents that appear in local news media.
One thing these collated datasets don’t take into account is the climate change impacts of both fossil fuel extraction and use. A 2015 study found that, to keep global temperatures from increasing by more than 2°c, existing fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. Thus, in addition to oil spills, earthquakes, and gas leaks, there are also climate change effects.
Considering the range of environmental, public health, and economic impacts, is the extraction and use of fossil fuels still worth it?
It’s a tough question to answer, largely because we do currently have good alternatives to fossil fuels that provide the same amount of energy, efficiently, but with less impact. Recent studies suggest it will be some time before renewables are able to generate a significant proportion of the energy that would otherwise come from fossil fuels. For the time being, the global economy is tied to fossil fuels to keep society functioning.
But it’s a question that can’t be ignored, as at some point the costs may outweigh the benefit.