Coal Is a Four-Letter Word

From the Editor

My favorite line from the coal industry flaks is their boast that the United States has enough coal reserves to power the country for another 200 or so years.

Really?, I feel like saying, only 200 years! Because according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations we’ve got, like, a billion years of wind and solar energy ready to go.

I never cease to be amazed that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States gets about half of its electricity from coal. In the era of the iPad, Twitter, and Google, our society can seem all shiny and gleaming. Yet we run those high-tech wonders on a filthy and dangerous fuel first developed when the height of fashion involved men wearing powdered wigs and the fastest mode of transportation was the horse. It’s as if we built a spaceship to the future – and decided to use birds to get it off the ground.

Our continued reliance on coal reveals at once a lack of imagination, an overabundance of greed, and evidence, if you need any more, of the corruption of our political system. Because if you review its long list of liabilities, our dependence on coal makes zero sense. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels. While generating 50 percent of our electricity, it’s responsible for 80 percent of electricity’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it a main driver of climate change. Notwithstanding a well crafted and persistent PR campaign hyping “clean coal,” there’s nothing hygienic about the black rock: Just remember, as one rebuttal, the December 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority, when 1.1 billion tons of toxic sludge destroyed 300 acres in one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Nor is coal extraction safe. The arsenic, barium, lead, manganese, and other chemicals poisoning waterways in the coalfields of Appalachia make that clear enough. As do the tragic deaths of 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in April.

Coal has just one asset to balance those dangers – it’s relatively cheap. For now, that’s enough for the carbon barons to maintain their influence in Washington and the state capitals. Coal’s profits helped deform last year’s House legislation on climate, which gave coal companies $60 billion for the development of still-unproven carbon sequestration technology. And the coal companies still have the muscle to keep the criminally negligent Don Blankenship of Massey Energy (who presided over the recent mine explosion) out of jail, where he most certainly belongs.

One industry leader recently whined to Congress that there is a “war on coal.” In fact, there is. But it’s not coming from the corridors of the Capitol (where coal keeps a headlock on typically liberal Senators like Sherrod Brown and Jay Rockefeller). Rather, it’s coming from the grassroots. As Ted Nace reports in his inside-the-movement chronicle (“Ready to Rumble”), communities across the country are converging against the industry. They are demanding a halt to destructive mining practices, fighting the construction of new coal-fired power plants, and trying to shut down those that have been in operation for decades. They are saying, with impressive force and clarity, that coal’s time is up.

Let’s hope so. Because if we accept King Coal’s boasts of its own longevity, 200 years might be all the future we have left.

graphic of Jason Mark signature

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