Friday Rant: Energy and Exploitation in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry

A few weeks ago I was up in Chicago for the inaugural ISM Risk Conference (see coverage here) and added a short vacation to the same trip, bringing my family along. My two daughters are 10 and 5, so you'll understand why we went to a few museums while in Chicago, one of which was The Museum of Science and Industry. I recommend the visit; it's an interesting museum with more detail around its exhibits (of interest to adults) than what I usually see in the museums I've been to in the US.

No nukes – ironically (as the rest of the story will show) and symbolically, the museum's exhibit on nuclear energy was closed.

Coal, coal and more coal – instead, we went to the coal exhibit. According to the museum's own Coal Mine presentation, as well as the Illinois Coal Association, the Illinois Basin has the largest coal resources in the USA; with almost 25% of all US coal reserves falling inside the state of Illinois. Coal bearing rocks underlie about 65 percent of Illinois. Depending on the source you read, there is potentially 100 billion tons of recoverable coal in Illinois, which is enough to meet the entire country's needs for the next 100 years! Measured at the BTU (energy content) level, there is more energy in the coal in Illinois than in all the oil in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Read more about the museum (and its exhibit on coal mining) here.
Industry hookup – the museum proudly touts its relationship with various industry associations (agricultural, dairy, and of course the coal industry). It even has an extensive set of donated equipment and various "Go Coal Industry" types of posters. In fact, the Coal Mine has been a permanent museum exhibit since 1933.

History lesson – the exhibit shows the evolution of technology used in mining coal. Obviously the industry is highly mechanized these days and developments have been substantial over the years. The tour takes you from the practically suicidally dangerous and dirty early days; with manual labor, no safety equipment and, if the ever-present coal dust fog (despite sloshing water everywhere to reduce the amount) wasn't deadly enough there was also the practically undetectable methane hazard waiting to kill you at any moment. Scary, scary times. Fast forward to modern coal mining and its reliance on (rather pricey, running well into the hundreds of millions) equipment that automates the process by crawling inside the coal seams, and actually propping up the earth as it moves along – lifting the earth by several feet – and at the same time collecting and moving the coal to conveyors that carry it out. All of this with minimal manual labor involved below ground (thankfully!) and with engineers running the equipment from above ground instead. Great progress and great news for the future, or so one would think. But wait for the twist...!

The guide – the tour was led by someone who had more of an archetypical UC Berkeley grad perspective on corporations in general and the coal mining industry in particular – those of us on the tour were constantly "informed" that coal mining is nothing short of pillage and plunder, that the industry has unfair subsidies, and that even if there's more than 100 years' worth of energy for the entire nation in the ground, it's still all bad. The guide also told us that the industry can't do proper ROI calculations – that the "true" payoff time for modern mining equipment actually exceeds its operational life, that the mining companies can't make any real return on their money. The implication is that mining companies are not-for-profits that are incentivized by capital destruction! The clincher was a lengthy tirade on the unfair practice of paying engineers in the control rooms above ground more than those employees who still have to go below ground to service the equipment. A truly bizarre presentation – maybe the guide had seen the Morlock and Eloi struggle in the original Time Machine movie a few times too many?

Aftermath – well, I had to take my daughters (10 and 5 years old) aside afterwards and explain how the guide had "misunderstood" a few things, and then I set the record straight by pointing out matters such as the never-ending ingenuity that was at the unspoken center stage of the exhibit. Going from all manual pickax-and-shovel work to nearly fully automated extraction is brilliant progress, yet was completely ignored by the guide who presumably thinks all inventions have already been made. I also pointed out how coal powered energy plants these days are practically completely clean. (The handwringing over CO2 is another issue – no need to comment on that angle). Finally, that the country needs energy to run, and that you sometimes have to pick less attractive solutions until better ones become available. And history shows that, with some faith in the marketplace, better approaches will be available when they are needed.

In closing – the future of our country's energy needs deserves more serious, and honest, coverage than what was on display at the museum that day. More science and industry, less emotional hyperbole would have been great! The rest of the museum was far more enjoyable – I especially found the captured WWII German sub U505 absolutely fascinating. Well worth a visit next time you are in Chicago. Please mock the Coal Mine tour guide from me: my wife made me hold my tongue!

- Thomas Kase

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