Entropy and Energy

Mountaintop removal


We live in a universe that favors disorder over order. Ever since the big bang, matter has been assembling itself into stars and galaxies, then blowing the stars up into clouds of stardust, spreading heavier elements into the ether. Even for stars that are not big enough to blow themselves to pieces, they will go through a life cycle where they end up as dwarf stars slowly cooling down after their nuclear furnaces are extinguished. Disorder keeps increasing over time.

Earth is an anomaly. Matter has assembled to form self-replicating versions of itself. We call that life. Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen from earlier stellar explosions combine with primordial hydrogen to form the chemistry I studied in biochemistry class. Amino acids, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and deoxy- and ribonucleic acids somehow get combined to form organisms that can create other organisms like themselves. Alone among these organisms, humanity has developed the abilities to manipulate all other forms of matter, and manipulate all other organisms on this planet. We have developed ever more complex forms of what we call society, and we have grown this society into an interconnected web that is capable of affecting our entire planet. Humanity relies upon order for its progress.

As we have grown in our abilities and our influence, we discovered how to use stored forms of energy to leverage our limited muscles. Indeed, what we call the industrial revolution depended upon containing water vapor, using its power to move metal and enabling us to move faster than any animal could transport us. Wood, coal, whale oil, petroleum, natural gas, and uranium all have served humanity by providing convenient concentrated energy sources during the last few centuries.

We have also discovered the problems with extracting and using these energy sources, though. Each form of energy we use causes undesirable side effects. Excessive use of wood has caused deforestation in many locations. Whale oil spawned an entire industry, and nearly drove many species to extinction. Petroleum contaminates everywhere that it touches when it escapes confinement. Natural gas seemed a relatively clean source of energy, but as new methods of extraction through fracking have shown, it can contaminate groundwater if the extracting wells are not sealed properly. And all of the new piping and equipment used to transport the gas increases leakage of this potent greenhouse gas. Uranium? Though it does not cause gaseous pollution, it has huge potential to cause massive contamination of the ground for thousands of years if there is a loss of containment at a nuclear facility.

Then there’s coal. Residue of the geologic ages where abundant vegetable life sank down into murky mires, eventually to be compressed by sediments over millions of years into veins of carbon. Those veins underlay many places on this earth. And in order to fuel the industrial revolution, it became profitable to extract this concentrated energy. My state of West Virginia drew its lifeblood from the veins of coal over the years, as generations of miners risked both sudden death from explosions and rock falls, and slow death through dust exposure in order to make a living from a landscape inhospitable to farming. Mining was the honorable profession that fostered equality across the races, since all who entered the mines wore the makeup of the black grit of coal dust.

So pervasive was the mining culture that much of this state surrendered itself to its power. The coal camp with its company store enabled many families to live in this mountainous terrain, but at the price of subjugation to the mine owners. They may have seemed beneficent by providing housing to their workers, but if the workers ever crossed the owners, that beneficence would be withdrawn in an instant. Still, young men could always count on getting a job in the mines. This certain knowledge meant that there was little advantage to becoming educated.

So it came to pass that in the last decade of the 20th century, a new method of mining was developed. The very mountains that formed this state would be dismembered by the use of explosives. Only in a state that was co-opted by an industry, would this method of mining be deemed as reasonable and desirable. That is, unless there was a desire to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah: Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

Order versus disorder. In converting an environment from an ordered system to a disordered one, a property known as entropy increases. As the coal veins remaining under the surface of the hills got thinner and thinner, it was not profitable to dig under the earth and extract the energy lifeblood from the veins of the earth alone. Now the only way to remove the coal and make money was to tear off the top layer of the hillside with exploding ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, push the overburden over the edge of the denuded hill, cover up the small streams that had worked to slowly erode the hills over eons. Then the exposed vein could be removed by men in machines, leaving behind a landscape barren of the topsoil and vegetation that formed the mountain ecosystem. A few miners would earn their livelihood during the time that the mountain kept bleeding coal.

One way to gauge the effect of an energy production system is to determine the amount of entropy created to collect the beneficial energy. Using that as a gauge, it would seem that methods of creating electricity directly from dilute energy sources like the sun and the wind create the least amount of entropy. Since humanity depends upon the ordered systems around us in order to sustain our society, these methods would be preferred to produce the necessary energy.

I can think of no method of energy extraction that man has ever created that caused as much entropy generation as mountaintop removal coal mining. We haven’t even broached the entropy that is common to all coal production and use – the fine particulates it produces once burned, and the ash left behind. Coal ash slurry can also unleash unexpected torrents of increased entropy when the dams are breached. Mountaintop removal should never have been allowed, but in this state, with education devalued for generations, it was viewed as the only way to enable people to make a living. Therefore, any attempt to reduce its use, or the use of coal, was viewed with extreme prejudice. This state is reaping what has been sown on and under its surface for generation after generation.

It was 47 years ago that I took part in the first Earth Day activities. As I remember, we went around Lincoln, picking up trash and having fun doing something worthwhile. Since the memory of rivers catching fire, and smog in cities being viewed as intractable, and awareness of the toxicity of chemicals seeped into the national consciousness, I am very pleased to see the progress our society has made in increasing living standards while reducing entropy (excuse me, pollution). Now, however, we are facing an administration that would return us to the days when America was great, and our view was dimmed by particulate pollution. I say fie on thee, Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt. Learn the lessons of history and science. Do not sentence the generations to come to an environment of increased entropy, higher sea levels, and increased suffering for those living on the margins of the sea around the world.

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