Clarifying The Myth Of Cheap Coal

In today’s world, access to electricity is one of the key measurements of a city or country’s standard of living – some countries have gone as far as making access to power a fundamental human right.
In the simplest terms, any country desirous of development and industrialization must provide electricity for its citizens.

Developed countries have come at this problem in many ways, hydro generated power, coal power, solar energy and for the most advanced of them- the dangerous challenge of nuclear energy.
Power is a rather peculiar topic to focus on as a Nigerian. Despite having Africa’s largest
population (estimated at 170 million) and economy by GDP ($521 billion as of 2013) successive administrations have failed to raise power generation past a record 5,000MW.

To put this in perspective, South Africa has a population half Nigeria’s size and generates 252, 578 Gigawatt hours (2014 estimate).
The promise of stable electricity has become a cliché campaign promise. The Obasanjo administration was said to have expended $16 billion on the power sector with no noticeable improvement. Nigeria basically uses the hydro and thermal methods of generating electricity.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and several times during Nigeria’s search to the answer of stable power supply, coal power has come to the fore a couple of times.

We have heard all too often that renewable energy such as solar and wind energy are too expensive to develop on a commercial scale and of course coal is a resource Nigeria has in abundance. With proven reserves of over 639 million tones and an inferred reserve of 2.75 billion tonnes, the myth of cheap coal was birthed.

The Buhari-led administration is the latest in the string of Nigerian administrations to promise stable electricity before the end of its tenure and as a result it is exploring some new solutions. Among these solutions is the decision to generate 30% of Nigeria’s energy needs through coal by 2030.

A recently released study by Global rights has helped us put the question of how much coal really costs into true perspective. The focus of the study was the Okobo village in Kogi state, an otherwise sleepy village which will have remained so but for its possession of coal.

The federal government granted ETA-Zuma, a mining company a 30-year license to explore coal in Okobo, the company also proposed the building of a power plant at the Itobe community. The people of Okobo were understandably excited, for the mining company made grand promises of development and possibilities for this obscure village.

In time, these poor people would learn that sometimes the true cost of natural resources are the lives and livelihoods of the people.
ETA-Zuma chose to use the surface mining method to extract coal. The open surface method requires the use of explosives to break the top layer of soil and rock before the coal is drilled and systemically mined in strips.

The first and most obvious problem which the people did not foresee was the pollution of the air by coal dust which in time ensured that respiratory problems were on the rise. Okobo village has no functional health facility.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect was that in time, the heavy equipment and constant vibration of the ground eventually caused the walls of Okobo’s only school to collapse, leading to the death of one student.

Okobo’s only water source has since been rendered useless by the coal sludge which pours into the river as a result of erosion, highlighting once again how coal mining is changing the topography of the land.
The Nigerian government has always treated the environment in a nonchalant manner as evidenced by the scale of destruction in the Niger delta region. Countless oil spills have ensured that the rivers are filled with dead fish and that the people no longer have access to water.

Coal is only such a cheap way of meeting power needs only when considered in isolation.
In the final analysis, the direction of the coal conversation should start to focus on the cost of the environment. Should development come at the cost of our irreplaceable environment?

The people of Okobo, having the benefit of insight would definitely make a different choice if they had known then what they know today.

After all, isn’t prevention better than cure?