A Rebuttal To Coal Apologists

An excellent piece in the New York Times about the fate of the Spruce 1 coal mine in West Virginia has sparked a new round in the debate over mountaintop removal — a supremely destructive coal mining practice that we’ve covered on this blog.

That debate has, naturally, expanded beyond the environment community. A writer over on Change.org’s Poverty in America blog, Ashley Eberhart, posted in defense of mountaintop removal mining and the Spruce 1 project, writing, “Coal is the backbone of many small town economies, a crucial element that environmental elitists seem intent on breaking.”

Allow me to retort.

First and foremost, the characterization of “environmental elitists” intent on destroying local economies is unfair and insupportable. What environmentalists are worried about, and rightly so, is the health and well-being of local communities — and you’d be hard pressed to argue that coal mining is good for either the health or well-being of any community, except in a purely economic sense, an argument Eberhart takes up. And even that is debatable.

Eberhart’s post came a day after it was revealed that workers at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine intentionally disabled a methane gas monitor two months before a catastrophic explosion at the mine claimed the lives of 29 people — an explosion likely caused by a dangerous build up of — you guessed it — methane gas. Eberhart doesn’t mention this fact, however, and chooses instead to highlight the plight of miners who won’t be able to afford to send their kids to college if the government shuts down a mine to protect the environment. But an unemployed miner has hope of find more work to put their kids through school. A dead miner certainly does not.

Eberhart says she is not arguing against protecting the environment, but that she is merely a big proponent of the idea that basic human rights are more valuable than trees and streams. This choice between human rights and nature, however, is a false one. There would be no point in debating human rights if there were no trees, for instance. Trees create the oxygen humans breathe, while sucking up and storing carbon dioxide. In other words, we don’t just need trees to breathe, we also need trees as valuable carbon sinks — cut them all down to make way for mountaintop removal coal mining and extend that rational elsewhere and the catastrophic global warming that would result makes the human rights debate entirely moot. Destroy nature for cheap energy, and unemployment will be the least of our problems.

Eberthart also writes “everyone who really, REALLY hates having access to silly modern technologies like affordable electricity will be pleased to know that the federal government is continuing to do everything it can to destroy our country’s biggest source of energy.” This is similar to an argument often used by both coal and oil lobbyists — get rid of us and you may as well go back to living in caves with no electricity.

Not every coal apologist makes such outrageous claims, and I’m not saying that Eberhart has in this case. But she does imply that coal is the only affordable energy source available. What coal apologists don’t often mention, though, is that in reality there is no such thing as cheap fossil fuel energy. King Coal keeps the price of coal-fired energy down by externalizing many of the costs of doing business and foisting them on to the public. We pay for our use of “cheap” coal, for instance, in the form of doctor bills for increased occurrences of health problems like asthma in children, to name just one of the many negative consequences to human health from burning coal for fuel. Furthermore, it is patently false to claim that we can’t live without fossil fuels, as I wrote previously on this blog. We can achieve 96 percent renewable energy by 2050, and creation hundreds of thousands of jobs, but we have to start the transition sometime.

The crux of Eberhart’s argument is, of course, economic, as are most arguments in favor of coal mining. But so, I’m sure, were the arguments in favor of protecting the horse cart manufacturing business at the advent of the automobile. Like it or not, some industries fall by the wayside as we make technological advances. Adjusting to the changes wrought in our society by technological progress can be difficult, but it also can be done.

Witness, for instance, the remaking of America’s Rust Belt into the so-called “Green Belt.” Cities like Syracuse, NY, Pittsburgh, PA, and Milwaukee, WI have brought themselves back from the brink of economic collapse by reinventing themselves into centers of the emerging green economy. Surely the people of Appalachia can similarly reinvent their local economies. It might be painful at times to make such a transition, but certainly less painful than losing more miners to negligent safety practices at coal mines. (To my knowledge, there have not been any lives claimed by explosions at wind farms or solar installations to date.)

Eberhart is right that we don’t currently have the capacity from renewables to entirely replace coal on the grid, but that’s no reason to allow mountaintop removal to bury more streams and valleys under toxic rubble and poison more communities while we make the switch to clean energy. And that switch is happening, despite the coal industry’s best efforts to stop it. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the wind power industry managed to shatter all previous records by installing 10,000 megawatts of new wind capacity in the USA, enough to power over 2.4 million additional homes. That means the wind is already powering almost 10 million American households,  and employs 85,000 people — more than the roughly 83,000 people employed in coal mining. That’s just an inkling of what the clean energy job market could become.

This debate is really larger than coal vs. wind or the future of any other particular sector of the economy, however. The disaster at the Massey mine (only the latest in a long string of catastrophes in coal mines) and the spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico (only the latest in a long string of catastrophic oil spills) point to the true cost of our society’s reliance on fossil fuel energy. The clean energy revolution is undeniably happening, but we need to kick it into high gear — for the good of every American community, from Appalachia to California.

Image credit: Jen SFO-BCN

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