In the Netherlands, electricity is still being produced by coal-fired power stations. The coal bought by the power stations comes from South Africa, Colombia and Indonesia, among other places. However, according to a report recently presented by Greenpeace, coal mining processes in those countries form a threat to the environment, while simultaneously breaching human rights. Henk Moll, University Reader in Natural Resources at the University of Groningen, is pleased with the fact that Greenpeace has drawn attention to this problem. He argues that purchasers should only take coal from Europe in the future.
Until the 1960s, the Netherlands itself produced coal on a large scale. ‘But due to the discovery of the natural gas reserves, we were in the fortunate position that we could abandon coal mining.’ From then on, our energy came from oil and gas. But 1972 witnessed the energy crisis, and the political field reacted by diversifying the energy supply so that we were not dependent on a single energy source. That is the reason that new coal-fired power plants have been built since then. At present, there are plans to build five new coal-fired stations.
Because the mines in the Province of Limburg have been closed, coal has to be imported from abroad. In 2006, the Netherlands imported around 8.5 million tons of coal, from countries such as South Africa, Colombia and Indonesia, where coal production leads to much environmental damage. In addition, the miners often work in abominable conditions. Moll explains that extracting minerals produces much environmental damage, almost by definition. ‘You take material out of the ground and you therefore disturb the surroundings.’ For example, methane, a greenhouse gas, is released during coal mining, and acidifying substances can seep into the ground water.
Environmental damage due to coal mining can be limited to a certain extent. Moll: ‘For example, methane can be captured and converted into a greenhouse gas with less damaging effects. Moreover, the environment where the coal mining has taken place can be restored to its original state.’ It is also quite possible to limit the health and safety risks of the miners. ‘In Germany, where coal is still produced, working conditions have considerably improved. Of course, there is a price to pay for such improvements.’
That is why Moll argues that we ought to realize that the coal we import is so cheap primarily because the environment in those countries is given little priority and also because little attention is devoted to the health and safety of the miners there. ‘I believe that we are misusing our position of power. We ourselves have developed methods of extracting coal while keeping our hands clean. But this has led to coal mining becoming relatively expensive in Europe, and that is why we import coal from other countries. This is a typically Dutch approach: we buy something on the world market but we don’t look any further than that.’
Moll advocates the exclusive purchase of coal from Europe. Then we have a better overview of environmental and working conditions. Moreover, there are more regulations governing these aspects here. ‘I think that continents should be able to fend for themselves. And that is eminently possible in the case of coal. After all, in contrast to oil, coal is reasonably evenly distributed among all the continents.’ Moll also thinks that the Netherlands could perhaps cut down on coal burning. After all, so much CO2 is released, which does not correspond to the newly agreed climate policy. ‘Coal is still cheap, but worldwide demand is increasing, and this will lead to a rise in price. Besides, we still have lots of natural gas in the Netherlands. So there are alternatives.’
Henk Moll (1952) studied Physics in Groningen. From 1981-1984 and 1987-1991, he was attached to the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM) of the University of Groningen as a researcher. He became a university lecturer in 1992 and gained his PhD a year later. In 2004 he was appointed University reader in Natural Resources in relation to sustainable production at the IVEM. Moll performs much practical environmental research – both locally and internationally, and in conjunction with other disciplines such as Psychology and Business Studies.
Prof. Dr. H.C. Moll, tel. +31 (0)50 - 363 4607/4609 (work), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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