There’s been much to-do in the past month about the “war on coal,” the latest front of which is, supposedly, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule to cut carbon emissions from power plants. This “war” has already been invoked in midterm election campaigns, not just by Republicans but also by coal-state Democrats who protest that the industry is being singled out for euthanasia.
They’re half right. It’s important to distinguish between coal mining communities and Big Coal corporations; technology and geology doomed the former, not government policy. Coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades as strip mines and advanced machinery made the work less dependent on human labor. In Appalachia, coal itself has run out, at least in reserves that are economically feasible to mine. Still, Big Coal’s investors and political supporters are right to notice that in a carbon-constrained world, their product has to be phased out even further. Burning carbon rocks is just irreconcilable with climate action.
What all this “war on coal” talk is missing is the fact that while the Obama administration is taking steps to discourage coal consumption at home, it is tacitly promoting coal exports overseas. Last week the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to lease more than 8 million tons of coal on public lands in Colorado’s Delta County—a continuation of a decades-long debacle known as the federal coal leasing program, which has cost taxpayers billions and effectively acted as a subsidy for Big Coal.
The primary benefit of the Delta County sale, according to the BLM’s environmental impact statement, is that it will be a “contribution to the supply of coal to meet the nation’s energy demands.” This is a fishy statement considering that demand for coal in the United States is at a twenty-four-year low. It looks particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the prospective buyer, Bowie Resources, has been aggressively trying to develop new pathways to get its landlocked Western reserves to Asia—in other words, is actively looking for ways to avoid contributing to the domestic coal supply.