Thursday, May 19, 2016
Not Mine Any More
The coal industry has been flagging since the 1920s, fewer workers every year, declining demand for coal and a horrible reputation for the worst kind of pollution, tanking the atmosphere with every puff of sooty smoke. Particular emissions and CO2abound, but with some serious “scrubbing,” even so-called “clean coal” still means that the effluents are simply pumped underground for future generations to deal with. And yet coal is still the primary fuel used to generate electricity worldwide. International climate change accords are pushing to stop coal-fired electrical power generation, and most of the developed and developing world seem to agree.
Here in the United States, despite the serial bankruptcies of coal producers, complaints of polluted drinking water and a recent conviction (last December, Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship was convicted for safety violations at a West Virginia mine where 29 workers were killed), putting coal miners back to work has become a Republican rallying cry. Unencumbered by environmental concerns, continuing to maintain that climate change is a hoax, Republicans are vowing to restore coal to its former glory, returning miners to an obsolete industry.
But this remains a hot button in West Virginia and a very important swing state, Pennsylvania, where coal mines have been important local industries. Hillary Clinton’s statement at a CNN Town Hall interview on March 13th has grabbed headlines ever since: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” is the line that her opponents like to quote, even though she tempered her response with a pledge to retrain miners for new jobs going forward, using federal funds to soften the economic blow to those miners burdened by the transition. Could Clinton lose the general election because she might just lose a major electoral vote state like Pennsylvania?
The backlash was immediate and widespread. Perhaps this local response best sums up the reaction from Republicans across the board. “‘[Clinton’s] statement is an affront to the coal miners of the United States, and their families, as well as the up to 11 working families whose livelihoods depend on each of our direct mining jobs,’ said Murray Energy Corp. [West Virginia] CEO Robert E. Murray. ‘While such a threat to our lives from a presidential candidate is beyond strange, it does confirm what the national Democrat Party [sic] has been accomplishing for the past eight years.’.. Murray pointed out his company now employs about 5,300 people over six states - or almost 37 percent less than the 8,400 it employed as recently as May .
“‘Nearly 200,000 of America's coal miners have lost their jobs, and 49 American coal companies have filed for bankruptcy, as a result of the policies of the Obama administration and the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity,’ Murray said. ‘Mrs. Clinton has now promised to further this destruction.’” The Wheeling Register, March 17th. Nothing new, simply a trend that began almost a century ago. Clinton backtracked and apologized for the seeming callousness of her remark, but the damage was done. Donald Trump seized on her statement and promised coal miners full employment under his administration. But we all know that nothing is going to revive a moribund industry whose time is long, long past.
But even Clinton’s backtracking seem to fly in the face of the inevitable: “I don't know how to explain it other than what I said was totally out of context for what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time… It was a misstatement because what I was saying is the way things are going now, (coal miners) will continue to lose jobs. It didn't mean that we were going to do it. What I said is that is going to happen unless we take action to help and prevent it.”
Simply, we cannot afford to continue to support coal-fired power generation anywhere. The costs of letting this coal process continue are vastly higher than the losses that must be faced by the coal industry, workers and businesses. We actually can bridge the transition for coal miners and their local communities at a much lower cost than allowing this industry to continue and lying to ourselves that this economic sector has a remotely viable future anywhere.
John Sutter, writing for the May 6th CNN.com, opines: Economics are part of the picture. The natural gas boom is part of the reason coal companies are going down the tubes. But the bigger story -- the one the candidates are less focused on -- is about public health and climate change.
Consider two sets of facts:
1. Coal does employ many thousands of people but the harm caused by burning coal affects billions. There were less than 75,000 coal miners in the United States in 2014, the most recent year numbers are available, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, pollution from coal power plants caused an estimated 13,200 premature deaths in the United States in 2010, according to a 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit dedicated to improving air quality. The group attributed an additional 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks to coal power that year alone. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills an estimated 3 million per year -- and it could cause 6.6 million premature deaths per year by 2050.
2. Coal is a major driver of climate change. At least 175 countries, including the United States, recently signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. That international treaty aims to prevent catastrophic warming, which places an unfair burden on the world's poor and unborn generations. In order to do that, the agreement says the world needs to be carbon neutral by the end of the century. That basically means no fossil fuels, especially coal. An article published in the journal Nature says 88% of the world's coal reserves must be left in the ground if we're going to meet international climate targets. For the United States the proportion is higher: 95%.
On Tuesday, May 10th, Bernie Sanders blew Hillary Clinton out of the West Virginia Democratic primary by well over 15 percentage points; she lost in every county. Denial is never pretty. Sorry coal miners, it your world is not coming back no matter what anyone might promise. Denying technological change, environmental consequences and changes in basic consumer supply and demand dynamics, trying to force a return to a clearly unrepeatable past, never works. Never. The sooner we deal with reality, the less expensive it will be for all concerned. There is absolutely nothing anyone can do to bring back “King coal.” That ship has long-since sailed.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we cannot change the world with slogans and meaningless gestures to return to a place it never will be again.