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The jobs should be blowing in the wind

November 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

Trends that go against ‘common wisdom’ are often hard for people to absorb and realize. A journalist’s job, however, should be to question (even challenge) common wisdom rather than simply parroting talking points that are, in fact, misleading if not outright false. When it comes to energy and environmental reporting, sadly, such questioning often seems to fall by the wayside.

Today’s New York Times provides a case in point. Amid a discussion of how nations that are seeking to develop stronger climate change policies are, at the same time, increasing coal exports to China, Elisabeth Rosenthal writes:

the love-hate relationship many wealthier countries have with coal: while environmental laws have made it progressively harder to build new coal-fired power plants, they do not restrict coal mining to the same extent.

That is partly because emissions accounting standards focus on where a fuel is burned, not where it is dug up; because the coal trade is a lucrative business; and because the labor-intensive mining industry creates jobs.

Such benefits are particularly hard to forgo in the midst of a recession.

Amid a recession and searing jobs reports, JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! should be priority 1, 2, and 3 for any politicians seriously interested in securing their position while helping their population. Thus, the “jobs” argument is obviously quite strong in getting any sort of political support for a (potentially) controversial program.

Sadly, however, when it comes to coal mining, it might just be a sleight-of-hand, Potemkin Village argument.

the labor-intensive mining industry creates jobs

What has been happening, globally but certainly in the United States, in coal mining is something quite similar to industrial manufacturing: technology is improving efficiency and reducing the labor hour per output. In the United States, for example, coal output has grown by over four times over the past 100 years (269 million short tons in 1900 to 1162 in 2006) while mine employment has fallen by over 80 percent (from 448,581 miners in 1900 to 82,595 in 2006). One of the ways to describe mountain top removal: the companies’ objective is not to get the miner out of the mine, but the miner out of mining. And, as per the employment numbers, its working.

There are other, more productive, energy investments paths that truly are job creators.

It looks likely that US solar employment will exceed, in 2010, US coal mining employment. Several years ago, in fact, wind power jobs exceeded coal mining jobs in the United States.  As noted there,

Wind-power supplies about two percent of America’s electricity. Coal about 50 percent. Wind already provides more jobs than mining. Hmmm … What happens when wind is ten percent of electricity supply? 20 percent?

In addition to any discussions about global warming or mountain-top removal or fly ash, the next time you have a discussion with anyone about renewable power versus fossil fuel remember this: When it comes to JOBS!!! JOBS!!! JOBS!!!, clean energy beats dirty energy, hands down.

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Tags: coal · Energy

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