Category Archives: Climate Change

Screw the Coal Industry

When Donald Trump announced that he was pulling the US out of the Paris Global Warming accords, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries in the world that have opted out, he cited the need to protect American jobs.  All during the campaign and during his time in the White House, Trump has constantly referred to coal mining jobs as the type of jobs he wanted to protect and increase.  Since the announcement, several of his Republican mouthpieces specifically referred to coal mining jobs as prime examples of the type of jobs which environmental regulations have destroyed.

I have all of the empathy in the world for communities that have been devastated by the loss of jobs in the coal industry.  Currently approximately only 77,000 people nationwide are employed in the coal mining business and 60,000 jobs have been lost in this employment sector since 2011. 30,000 coal miners are currently unemployed. In communities where coal jobs support the economy, other businesses and the people they employ have also adversely affected.

However, the job loss in the coal industry is the result of many factors; the most important by far is the competition of natural gas.  Fracking has produced enormous volumes of natural gas fuel which has driven down the price of coal making it uneconomical to mine in many cases.  In 2005 about 92 percent of the nation’s coal consumption went into electricity generation and coal fired plants produced 50% of this country’s electricity. Today coal produces only 30% or our electricity while natural gas fired plants produced 34% and renewable sources produce 15%.  Mechanization has also eliminated the need for many miners and end of the big building boom in China in 2014 reduced the demand for the anhydrite coal mined in the eastern US which is used in making steal, dropping the price of this most valuable coal even further. And yes, environmental regulations played a part by make coal more expensive to use in producing electrical power, but this is far from the most important factor in the loss of coal mining jobs.

As of last year, companies had produced 25% of the coal in this country were bankrupt. Among these were four of the largest publicly traded companies which have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  Regardless of what Trump has promised, the vast majority of coal mining jobs are not coming back for reasons that have nothing to do with regulations.

Yet despite the misery caused by the loss of coal mining jobs in some areas of the country, we should not endeavor to bring those jobs come back.  If ever there has been a business which should follow the buggy whip manufacturers into oblivion it is the coal industry. For one thing, coal is by far the dirtiest fuel we currently use in abundance.  Let’s use an example the pollution one typical coal burning power plant produces – and remember this is with all of the currently required environmental safeguards installed:

According to the Union of Concerned Scientist:  A 500 megawatt coal plant produces enough to power a city of about 140,000 people.  It burns 1,430,000 tons of coal, uses 2.2 billion gallons of water and 146,000 tons of limestone. It also produces:

  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes and buildings.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a major cause of smog, and also a cause of acid rain.
  • 7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming. Coal produces 39% of global Carbon Dioxide emissions.
  • 500 tons of small particles. Small particulates are a health hazard, causing lung damage.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuels are made of hydrocarbons; when they don’t burn completely, they are released into the air. They are a cause of smog.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and contributor to global warming.
  • 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge. Instead of going into the air, the pollution goes into a landfill or into products like concrete and drywall. This ash and sludge consists of coal ash, limestone, and many pollutants, such as toxic metals like lead and mercury.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers Acid rain also causes mercury poisoning by leaching mercury from rocks and making it available in a form that can be taken up by organisms.
  • Trace elements of uranium. A study by DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab found that radioactive emissions from coal combustion are greater than those from nuclear power production.

Also the coal mining operations themselves are one of the biggest sources of environmental devastation in the country.  For many years the higher quality coal was mined deep underground in the Appalachian Mountains particularly in the states West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  This mining method caused its own set of environmental problems.  Out west, especially in Wyoming and to lesser extent Montana, coal veins are within a few feet of the surface making the more environmental destructive but cheaper open pit mining methods feasible.  Now to avoid the high costs of drilling tunnels underground, mining companies in the Appalachians have resorted to what can only be described as strip mining on steroids.  This mining method is called mountain top removal. The entire tops of lush green mountains are blown off with dynamite to get to the coal below.

The soil and rock which was formally the top of mountain is shoved down into the valleys below destroying more forest and wildlife and burying the streams that run though those valleys. Earth Justices estimates that “in the past few decades, over 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters that provide drinking water for millions of Americans have been permanently buried and destroyed. An area the size of Delaware has been flattened.”  Once the mines are closed down, where once there were beautiful forested mountains and valleys teaming with wild life, the mining companies leave barren areas so large they can easily be seen from space as huge scars on the land. While the mines are in operation, rain mixes with the coal dust, drains off of the mountains, and makes its way into the ground water polluting it with heavy metals and other carcinogenic compounds.  All too often nearby towns and rural inhabitants have seen their cancer rates skyrocket.

Coal mining is also destructive of the health of the miners.  Aside from the obvious accident risks of underground mining and dealing with large amounts of explosives and huge mining machinery in open pit and mountain top removal mining, miners continually have to deal with the coal dust which pervades their worksites.  A new study by Washington State University states that, “Exposure to particulate air pollution is much more than a nuisance – it is strongly linked to increased deaths and reduced life expectancy and is recognized by the WHO (World Health Organization) as a cause of lung cancer.” This dust causes high incidences of COPD, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP, also known as black lung), and progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), and lung cancer in miners. A 2016 survey by National Public Radio of black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio found that cases of black lung were “surging” in the coal mining regions of the Appalachians to 10 times the number previously reported by government agencies.

In addition, when coal mining companies go bankrupt, as many do as soon as soon as a site is mined out, their former retired workers who are suffering from illness brought on by many years of working in the mines often lose their pensions and health care benefits. In addition, many of the larger coal companies retain large staffs of lawyers who are very adept at using endless legal maneuvers to delay payments to disabled former miners as long as possible.  (If you would enjoy a very good novel about very destructive mountain top removal mining, its associated health problems, and the legal treachery of the coal companies, pick up a copy of the book “Gray Mountain” by John Grisham.)

While Donald Trump has always made a big show of his “huge” support of the coal industry and its jobs, I see nothing worth saving.  The mining of coal destroys forever wilderness environments, the health of the miners and, the health of nearby residents.  It is by far the dirtiest fuel we use to produce our electricity and to power our industries.  Burning coal dumps millions upon millions of tons of pollutants into our air and is the biggest contributor to global warming. The world would be a far better place if we started replacing every coal powered plant tomorrow.

But what would be the fate who would lose their jobs if that happened and what of the other people in their communities who depend on their business.  Well some coal mining would continue; coal has other uses besides producing power.  For instance, anhydrite coal is mixed with molten iron to make steel. But most coal is used for power generation so let’s assume that all of the 77,000 people who are presently involved in coal mining would lose the only good paying jobs for which they are qualified. Let’s also assume the 30,000 unemployed coal miners would also have no hope of ever returning to the mines.

Those 107,000 coal miners are equal to eight hundredths of one percent of the US workforce.  If all 77,000 currently employed miners lost their jobs tomorrow they would become a small rounding error in the country’s current 4.3% unemployment rate. But these folks, their families, and others in their in their communities who also depend on their paychecks are real people who shouldn’t be viewed as statistics.

If Trump wants really wants to “make America great again” he should adopt policies which will move us away from coal while taking care of the coal miners he says he loves.  For instance, he should sponsor legislation to make available $50,000 in federal funds per miner to retrain them in useful skills and maintain them and their families while they are trained.  And/or the federal govern government could provide $25,000 to each miner to move their families to locations were they are assured of getting decent jobs.  Trump should also lean on his business buddies to locate new business in coal country to make use of the newly trained workforce.

Yes, such a program would be expensive, but less than one twentieth of the amount government paid out to aid the victims of the hurricanes which occurred in 2005.  Given the damage that the coal does to the environment and those who work in and live around the mines, and factoring in its huge contribution to devastating effects of global warming around the world, it would be a tiny cost to pay.

Cajun    6/3/2017