As the presidential election draws ever nearer, the campaign in our nation’s coalfields has devolved into an argument over which candidate can more quickly run away from his previous—and accurate—statements that burning coal to produce electricity kills people.
In coal-producing regions, including the swing state of Ohio, Republican Mitt Romney echoes a ferocious public relations campaign by the coal industry attacking what it calls the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” which supposedly threatens jobs and an entire “way of life.” In West Virginia, President Obama is seen as so toxic that Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin skipped their own party’s national convention. Both have made opposition to Environmental Protection Agency initiatives a central plank in their campaigns.
Romney’s embrace of coal was on full display during the first presidential debate, when he went on a riff about energy policy and threw in at the end: “And by the way, I like coal. I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies.” The comment drew no response from Obama. But the president’s failure to push back wasn’t just another mistake in what was generally a poor debate performance. Throughout the campaign, Obama has scurried away from any discussion of what’s wrong with coal and why tougher regulations are needed at every stage of its life cycle, from mine to power plant to waste dump.
If the president needs a reminder, residents of the Appalachian coalfields could give him a long list of talking points about the downside of coal. Some are well-known: burning coal to generate electricity, for example, is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention other pollutants clearly linked to illness and premature death.
Or take mountaintop removal, a kind of strip-mining on steroids in which explosives blast apart mountain peaks to uncover multiple seams of coal. Giant shovels and trucks dig and haul away the coal. Leftover rock and earth—the stuff that used to be the mountain—is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams. Since 1992, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled by mining waste at the rate of 120 miles per year, according to the EPA. “Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses,” top University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer and a team of researchers concluded in a paper published in January 2010 by the respected journal Science.
Less well-known is the emerging evidence that residents living near these operations are at greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. “A growing body of studies have found significant associations between coal-mining areas and a variety of chronic disease problems for adults, after controlling for other disease risk factors,” said Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University professor who has co-written more than twenty such studies. And coal remains a dangerous business for the workers who do the mining. Not only do they face the daily risk of explosions and roof falls, but the deadly black lung disease—meant to be eradicated by a 1969 federal law—is on the rise again, as miners work longer hours in conditions made dustier by more aggressive coal-cutting machines.
If Obama had sought to ban all US coal mining during his term, or even to challenge Romney on the issue during the recent debate, he would have had lots of evidence to back him up. But the president’s policy decisions, mining employment data and even his own rhetoric make it clear that the “war on coal” is mostly fiction.
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First, the numbers: story after story from local and national media outlets decries the loss of jobs in the coal industry. And it’s true that since the start of 2012, most major coal producers have trimmed production and laid off workers. Roughly 1,300 jobs were lost in West Virginia alone in the second quarter of the year—a reduction of 5 percent, according to the Labor Department. But even the mining companies cite factors other than tougher regulations as the cause of those layoffs: the continued economic downturn; an unusually warm winter that lessened demand for electricity to heat homes; and the raging competition from natural gas, driven by new horizontal drilling and “hydraulic fracturing” techniques.
“It’s the market forces that are pushing [coal] out of the market,” said Alan Beamon, director of electricity, coal, nuclear and renewables analysis for the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.
Often overlooked as well is the fact that coal jobs in Appalachia and nationwide were on the rise during the first three years of Obama’s term. The National Mining Association posted a graphic last November that detailed a nearly 8 percent increase in coal mining employment. Some observers partly attribute the bump to an increase in traditional underground mining, as operators have tried to avoid scrutiny from regulators of mountaintop removal. And at least one industry lobbyist, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, has indicated that additional scrutiny helped fuel the increase in mining jobs. “Part of the reason the employment is up is it’s costing quite a bit more to mine a ton of coal and it’s taking several more people than it did just a couple of years ago,” Hamilton said during an appearance on statewide radio.
Given such trends, Matt Wasson, who follows coal employment numbers for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, said that the industry complaints make it seem like company officials are “more concerned about profits for their shareholders than jobs for West Virginians, not to mention the health and welfare of their workers and the communities in which they live.”
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The charge that Obama will ruin coal builds on attacks the industry launched against him four years ago. That campaign reached its peak just before election day in 2008, when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin seized on Obama’s remarks that his plans for dealing with climate change would “bankrupt the coal industry.” Never mind that Palin took those comments greatly out of context: Obama simply expressed the reality that in a carbon-constrained world, coal-fired power plants would need to install greenhouse controls to meet new emission standards. The Obama line is still widely used by coal backers, and the nuance of what was said is always lost in the process.
It’s true that Obama has tried to clamp down on mountaintop removal. Two months after taking office, the president gathered reporters from small regional newspapers for a question-and-answer session. When a Louisville reporter asked about mountaintop removal, Obama seemed to have his response ready. “You know, this is one of those things where I want science to help lead us,” he said. “I will tell you that there’s been some pretty country up there that’s been torn up pretty good. And I will also tell you that the environmental consequences of the runoff from some of these mountains can just be horrendous…. Not taking that into account because of short-term economic concerns, I think, is a mistake. I think we have to balance the economic growth with good stewardship of the land God gave us.”
The next day, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency had stepped in to force a tougher permit review process for two mountaintop removal operations, one in Kentucky and the other in West Virginia.
But with these permit reviews, and with stricter water quality guidance for mining that industry officials complained had slowed new permit approvals to a trickle, the administration took a legally questionable route, avoiding formal rule-making that would have subjected its policies to public review and comment. This left the EPA open to legal challenges; the agency has lost three major suits over its mountaintop removal crackdown.
Publicly, environmental groups supported the administration’s efforts, even as they privately feared the results. And while the EPA is appealing its losses, citizen groups say it’s time for the agency to try a different approach. Some want a specific ban on mountaintop removal, while others simply want the EPA to reverse a 2002 rule change that helped the coal industry fight citizen lawsuits to prevent streams from being buried.
It’s also worth remembering that on one key issue—a new nationwide standard on smog—Obama personally intervened to stop the EPA from moving forward with a rule that, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, would have helped avoid 2,450 to 4,130 deaths from heart attacks and respiratory diseases each year. And a promised rule to enact the first federal standards to govern the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants remains long overdue.
Even on coal miner safety and health, Obama’s performance has been mixed. The president appointed longtime United Mine Workers of America safety director Joe Main to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. But his term saw the worst US coal mining disaster in nearly forty years, when twenty-nine miners died on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The MSHA responded with tougher inspections and a flurry of new rules and proposed legislation. But some of the agency’s key rules—such as one restricting coal dust limits underground in an effort to eliminate black lung disease—remain bottled up, a casualty of the White House’s efforts to avoid appearing too tough on business.
Obama is responding to the “war on coal” rhetoric on the campaign trail by arguing that he’s actually more pro-coal than his opponent. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, he touted “clean coal” along with investments in wind and solar power as a “better path” for the nation’s energy system. (Both candidates emphasize their support for “clean coal,” a sort of Holy Grail for the industry that often amounts to little more than whitewashing coal’s negative impacts.) And in radio ads in Ohio, the Obama campaign attacked Romney for speaking the truth during his term as governor of Massachusetts, when his administration announced a crackdown on a plant in Salem. “When he ran for president, Barack Obama pledged to support clean coal and invest in new technologies,” the ad says. “And Mitt Romney? He’s attacking the president’s record on coal. But here’s what Romney said in 2003 at a press conference in front of a coal plant: ‘I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant, that plant kills people.’”
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It would be wrong to write all this off as typical campaign nonsense. The 2012 election comes at a crucial time in the coalfields and in the nation’s seemingly hopeless effort to address global warming. Arguing over the “war on coal” is a dangerous distraction from the important work that needs to be done to build a post-coal economy.
Climate scientists tell us we’re reaching—or perhaps have already passed—the tipping point in the planet’s ability to accept more greenhouse gases. Action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants is urgently needed. But the failure of Congress and the White House to impose legal limits on those emissions has made utilities back away from even small test projects to install carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) equipment on their power stations. Many experts question whether this technology is viable or will ever be economical. But for coal communities, CCS is really the only way to survive in a carbon-constrained world. Yet the industry’s lobbying efforts, and its huge PR blitz against any climate legislation or regulations, continues to set back research and deployment.
At the same time, the fact that coal is a nonrenewable energy source may finally be hitting home in places like southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The latest Energy Department forecasts show that coal production in central Appalachia is expected to be cut in half by the end of this decade.
Experts have been warning for years that a century of mining, ending with the more recent mountaintop removal era, has eaten away at the best and most accessible reserves in the region. One industry study, funded by the EPA and published in 2001, warned that “significant blocks of higher-quality Central Appalachian reserves are starting to be exhausted.” Energy Department data show that coal’s share of US electrical generation has dropped to 36 percent, far below the figures frequently cited by industry supporters (50 percent or more).
Coal isn’t expected to disappear anytime soon, but its economic impacts are almost certain to decline. The market for high-priced steel-making coal could provide a cushion, but it’s not clear how much. A complete bottoming-out of the Appalachian coal industry could mean catastrophe for some of rural America’s poorest communities, where high-paying coal jobs are about the only option for a living wage.
And while politicians on both sides fall all over themselves to declare their allegiance to coal, few of them talk about strategies to diversify coalfield economies or to provide a “just transition” for communities that have fueled the nation’s appetite for cheap energy and steel for generations.
A few local grassroots groups are trying to talk about such things. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, for example, has proposed a small increase in taxes on coal and natural gas, to be funneled into a Future Fund for educational and infrastructure projects to help build a new economy. Ted Boettner, executive director of the center, notes that other energy states—like Alaska, Montana and Wyoming—already have such a program. “The only feasible way to ensure that we will always benefit from our rich natural resources is to create a permanent trust fund,” Boettner explains.
The group Coal River Mountain Watch and the consulting firm Downstream Strategies have suggested that building wind energy farms on some Appalachian peaks is a better long-term goal than blowing up the mountains to get at the coal. “Given that coal production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever,” says Downstream Strategies president Evan Hansen.
Citizen groups in Kentucky have floated similar ideas, and various organizations have joined in a coalition called the Appalachian Transition Initiative. They talk about the potential economic benefits of green energy and efficiency, local food and farming, and above all improving educational systems in a region where schools and families face growing challenges, from unemployment to drug abuse.
Few regional leaders will focus on these things, and national leadership hasn’t been much in evidence. From the presidential race to heated battles for statewide and local legislative offices, talk of Obama’s “war on coal” still sucks all the oxygen out of every room and dominates most campaign ads. No one wants to consider anything else, and they most certainly don’t want to hear talk about what might come next.
West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, a longtime coal champion, became a rare exception to this rule toward the end of his life. In a major December 2009 op-ed seven months before he died, Byrd said it was time for mine operators to “embrace the future” and stop denying the science of climate change, and he urged his state’s residents to “think long and hard” about their relationship to coal.
Senate Democrat Jay Rockefeller, also of West Virginia, has recently taken up the issue as well, calling on coal companies to cease their “scare tactics” about tougher regulations. “The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said in June. Rockefeller urged coal executives to focus on reducing the negative impacts of extraction, and he said regional leaders “should commit ourselves to a smart action plan that will help with job transition opportunities, sparking new manufacturing and exploring the next generation of technology.”
The great Kentucky writer, thinker and farmer Wendell Berry wrote recently that the future of the people of Appalachia will “be determined by the kind of economy that may come to supplement and finally to replace the economy of coal.” In an essay called “What Else?” for Solutions magazine, Berry explained that Appalachia’s coal economy was forced on the region by mine operators and outsiders who have historically owned most of the coal. Berry said his wish is for the people of his home state—and perhaps for all of the coalfields—to “recognize in their own minds and places the powers of economic, political, and ecological self-defense and local self-determination.”
“The old chestnut that ‘coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource’ deserves revision,” Byrd said just a month before his death. “I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.”