True Costs of Coal

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork co...Image via WikipediaI haven’t found a ruling on the Tuesday decision that will effect all of us, those in the coal states most importantly, with better air and water, some surviving forests, and fewer of one kind of mining job–taking tops off mountains.

Turns out, there must be a pretty good case to justify this suit hundreds of miles of dead or buried creeks too late that the the Corps of Engineers made some slight miscalculations about the environmental safety re the Clean Water Act as it pertains to the method of coal extraction called mountaintop removal (MTR).

If the ruling is in favor of the litigants, it will not mean the end to coal. Funny thing: the largest producer of coal in Appalachia, Consul, gets only 4% of its coal from MTR, and the rest of its considerable volume from more traditional methods, so it doesn’t seem that money can’t be made and coal produced at financially attractive rates without MTR.

Even so, coal prices would go up since so much of it comes from this source (International Coal Group has 60 percent of production from surface mines, Massey has 47 percent, Alpha 44 percent and Patriot 36 percent.)

Meanwhile, the debate about coals future reaches the headlines not much more than a month before the election, and I have mixed feelings (though my vote is sealed, babies in bathwater notwithstanding.) McCain has made some decisive moves against MTR but favors up to 100 nuclear plants in our future.

Obama is pushing for research and “quick” implementation of the profound misnomer “clean coal” because we must export this technology to China that is building one dirty coal plant every week for the foreseeable future. I’m disappointed that he seems charmed by this technological fairy tale that compares to “healthy cigarettes” according to A. Gore, who recruits for the Monkey Wrench gang, suggesting the time has come for civil disobedience:

“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration,” he said at the third annual meeting of former President Bill Clinton’s initiative, which arranges partnerships between the very rich and the very needy.

Mr. Gore said the civil disobedience should focus on “stopping the construction of new coal plants,” which he said would add tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – despite “half a billion dollars’ worth of advertising by the coal and gas industry” claiming otherwise. He added, “Clean coal does not exist.”

Folks my age remember standing up against The Beast. And some are standing already in our times. But not enough. We’ve seen what happens when the bottom line is maximizing for shareholders no matter the consequences to little people on the ground. Might be time yet to find the balance between economy and ecology. We can pay now with higher electricity costs, or pay later and far more than pocket change.

Related reading and sources:
Reconsidering the Power to Move Mountains
Coal price hikes likely if mine ruling sticks
Gore’s Call to Action
Majority of American Public Opposes Mountaintop Removal

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. The “Independent Online Edition” from the UK reports that the melting of Arctic ice is now releasing huge plumes of methane gas from the sea along the coast of Siberia. According to the reports, methane gas is 20% more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Apparently, the methane being released in the Arctic has the potential to release as much greenhouse gas as the amount contained in the entire coal reserves in the U.S., and is unstoppable. The synergistic effects of this release, added to that from melting permafrost worldwide, will greatly accelerate Global Warming.

    This news item should be on the front page of every newspaper, and the lead item on every t.v. news report, yet it is being ignored by most of the world press. I hope there is still time to find that balance between economy and ecology too, but I fear that some of these new revelations suggest that the tipping point may have been passed.

  2. Fred, do you believe nuclear is a bad energy solution? If so, what’s a real world applicable alternative given projected energy demand? Thanks.