King Coal Keeps Trucking

Coal wins again.

Despite trend lines that show coal production and mining jobs in decline, backlash from industry executives and their pocket politicians led a Republican-controlled federal appeals court last week to strike down an environmental rule that would have required coal-fired power plants in Kentucky and 27 other states to cut pollution that drifts downwind and contributes to air-quality problems.

The cross-state air pollution rule was overturned by an appeals panel in Washington, DC, on a 2-1 decision. Utility companies stayed with their tried and true argument that costs to comply would drive up electricity rates.

I’m not saying this is not a factual statement. But these are private companies. If they need to pay to install modern technology that will result in a cleaner burning fuel and safer emissions, then that is THEIR cost of doing business.

The EPA has never regulated the coal industry as harshly as it should because much of that role is left to the individual states, and they drop the ball in the interest of short-term gains, jobs and cheap power.

In return our air is poisoned and fresh water contaminated. We as a society then have the cost of cleaning that up turned back upon us, not realizing often that this is the result of coal not taking care of its business on the front end.

Coal executives want to claim there is a war on coal, that environmentalists and Democrats are out to sabotage this perfectly reliable and clean running fuel source.

What the coal industry and its supporters fail to recognize is there is a cost associated with the pollution that comes from burning coal.

The EPA estimated that by implementing the cross-state air pollution rule, that cleaner air would have prevented 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths annually; 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks; hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks; and 1.8 million lost school and work days.

We pay already. And these savings on the health care side would easily offset what it would cost the industry to comply. But coal producers live in the short-term, and passing along the real costs of producing this fossil fuel would cut into their profit margins, and in return decrease their campaign contributions.

Not surprisingly the two Republican appointees on the appeals panel found the rule exceeded the EPA’s authority, while the Democratic appointee felt they erred.

Why do we continue to give coal this privileged ride?

The increased availability of natural gas has rendered coal an undesirable if not obsolete fuel. Global warming is here, and the science behind it has reached the point where it is undeniable.

Coal had its day. The time has come we take a serious look at this industry and start addressing the end game for those who rely so heavily on it for employment.

Arch Coal fired 750 miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia earlier this year. That is around 1500 Kentucky miners this year alone that have lost their jobs.

This may not sound like a lot, but these are the kind of jobs that can pay upwards of $70,000 a year. They are irreplaceable in the Appalachian region.

Kentucky is the third leading coal producer, behind Wyoming and West Virginia, but coal consumption is at a 20-year low. That is the rub.

Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, wanted to blame the utility companies who are switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, and that market pressures and a challenging regulatory environment are conspiring against them.

As the old mob proverb goes, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Other industries are already turning a cold shoulder to coal. It is the execs that are in denial.

The jury is still out on whether natural gas is a long-term solution, but it’s cheaper, and it produces fewer emissions that contribute to climate change. With depleted supplies coming from the Appalachian mines, coal prices keep going up; and facility costs at coal-fired power plants will only rise as they face expensive retrofits to comply with clean air rules.

This is further evidence of the difficult economic straits the coal industry faces going forward. Ignoring the evidence does nothing but delay the inevitable and leave Kentucky unprepared.

Coal is important in the Bluegrass, but signs point to a lower coal future.

Looking forward is hard. It’s the more difficult path because it is unknown, and business people only see lost profits and the expenses assumed with transitioning. But there is no easy road.

Coal is in the same position as health care, Medicare, and social security. These are massive programs, with many who advocate keeping the status quo for simplicity of understanding, but it’s not an option. Change must come or the bottom falls out. Coal needs to see the evidence and start reacting.

At the moment there are no jobs to replace the ones lost in mining. These towns were built-up around the coal industry. The schools, the stores, the churches – those all came along to support the mining community.

Take away the miners and there is a good chance the towns fold too.

In Kentucky there is all this coal-friendly pandering going on, especially from the two Republican senators.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to become Senate “Majority” Leader, so he gives Big Coal a wide berth.

McConnell supported a resolution to decrease EPA limits on mercury and other toxins emitted by coal-burning power plants. After it failed, he complained about how Obama’s EPA is killing jobs and families in Kentucky.

Tea Party heart-throb Sen. Rand Paul echoed Sen. McConnell in requesting the EPA get off coal’s back.

These two politicians are deep in the pocket of the coal industry, and see environmental protection as part of the war on coal.

The only national politician from Kentucky to introduce any kind of standards upon coal is Rep. John Yarmuth (D-3rd), who sought a moratorium on new or expanded mountaintop-removal mining. The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act would require a study to determine the health risks presented by this form of mineral extraction.

The coal industry has clearly demonstrated it has no interest in policing itself. For a change to come it first requires our political leaders acknowledge there is a problem. That will take the public finally realizing it is tired of the lies about how coal is a clean resource and ultimately will result in us having fresher air and water.

There is no magic answer. I think it is key to involve the locals in these coal mining areas, to empower them to find a future. These are insular communities, and trying to bring outsiders in to save the day could have the opposite effect.

Investments in infrastructure, entrepreneurship, local business interests and education are building blocks. Use clean energy. These are elements that could allow a community to thrive.

The sad part is aside from some jobs along the way, Kentucky never profited the way it should have from the coal industry. It didn’t build modern schools and cities along the way. Instead profits were maximized and expenses minimized and the only thing left in the wake of Big Coal is broken lives, collapsed towns and environmental clean-up sites.

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