Despite his significant backing of (that unicorn like notion of) “clean coal” and opening of huge areas of Federal land for increased coal production, the coal industry is bankrolling an aggressive campaign against President Obama — embraced with passion by the Republican Party — arguing that there is a “War on Coal”. These coal barons want no regulations between them and increased profitability — not protections for workers, not protections of local communities from mountain-top removal debris, not protections of fetuses from mercury poisoning from coal emissions, and certainly not any protections of our society’s future prosperity and viability through control of greenhouse gas emissions. The coal barons are putting massive amounts of money into efforts to drive Democrats out of office and seeking to froth up coal-country anger.
- Rather than reminding workers that coal-country jobs have been disappearing due to technological innovations and the use of mountain-top removal even as coal production increased, there are emotionally-charged claims of “a war on coal”.
- Rather than discussing how the Obama Administration has disappointed environmentalists by opening up land for coal production and backing coal exports to China, there are shrill exclamations about “a war on coal”.
- Rather than discussing how the booming natural gas production and low natural gas prices are driving coal from the U.S. electricity system since coal can’t compete on a level playing field, there are strident statements of “a war on coal”.
In the face of these shrill “war on coal” claims, it is worth noting that some of the most thoughtful paragraphs ever to appear in an American newspaper about coal came recently from a coal-country paper, the Roanoke Times, in an editorial entitled “Enemies of Coal“.
“Enemies of Coal” appeared a few days after Alpha Resources announced the closing of eight mines with the displacement of some 1,300 workers. Not surprisingly, the warriors for coal came out in force:
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th District, lobbed a predictable news release into the ether accusing a “group of government bureaucrats” of trying to force the coal industry out of business. Senate Republican candidate George Allen and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in with similar screeds against President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and, of course, their election opponents.
These “screeds”, however, simply missed the key point: sanity drives any thoughtful person to be an “enemy of coal”. As the Times editorial board put it:
In truth, we are all enemies of coal, not because we wish harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods, but because our expectations have changed.
Van Jones — that ‘Green Czar’ bogeyman — had excellent thoughts about averting “harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods”. We should recognize a reality: mining communities and miners have been true heroes in the formation of American. “King Coal” was brought from the earth by generations of miners (often generations from the same families) who literally risk their lives for the material critical for powering America’s rise to greatness. With technological advances, we do not have to rely on coal any longer to secure electricity for our homes, offices, stores, and factories. Whether solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear, or other low-carbon options, there are many paths to cost-effectively provide electricity. However, we should recognize the sacrifices from miners and mining communities and treat them as the unheralded heros of society that they have been. Thus, with the creation of real economic opportunities in their communities before mines are shut down, transition aid into mining communities, and provision (if appropriate) of honorable retirement to miners should be part of our path forward as the nation continues its shift away from coal to less polluting and less expensive/less costly electricity options.
We still want cheap electricity. That part hasn’t changed. But we also want streams and rivers free of mercury. We want a planet that will not be suffocated by greenhouse gases before our grandchildren become grandparents.
Note: there is a serious error in framing and conceiving in this paragraph. While “we still want cheap electricity”, this truly misses the mark. What we want is not “electricity” (whatever its price) but the services electricity helps provide. We want our houses cooled in summer and lighted at night, we want to be able to watch the game on Sunday, and have a cold beer from the refrigerator to drink it. What we want are “energy services” and not the energy. However, yes, what we want are energy services at a lower price. And, yes, the Roanoke Times editorial board is correct: “we still want cheap electricity” even if that “want” misses the real issue.
But, balancing that “cheap electricity,” we would like an idyllic nature of clean air to breath and the ability to eat the fish we catch in the river. And, well, we want our grandchildren to have the chance to be grandparents in a prosperous America. Simply put, the continued (let alone expanded) burning of coal threatens this.
In the past, we had to make trade-offs between two conflicting desires. But as study after study documented the terrible cost to our environment and our health from coal’s filthy byproducts, technology and the market changed, too, and offered us a cleaner and cheaper alternative in the form of natural gas.
While the emphasis on natural gas is somewhat mistaken (as natural gas does emit carbon dioxide and other energy options are surging forward with reduced costs and increased penetration, the editorial board is correct: Our “conflicting desires” do not have to be in conflict — even as one of the nation’s political parties seems intent on misinforming Americans about our options.
The editorial ends:
The economy has changed. Alpha has changed. We have changed. Yet Republican politicians continue to shake their fists at the future. If that is all the party has to offer, then it’s time for a leadership change as well.
Will the Republican Party continue “to shake their fists at the future” or will they offer a meaningful voice to the debate about what are truly the best paths forward to the nation to assure prosperity while mitigating catastrophic climate chaos?