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Examining The War On Coal

Kym Farnik
Flickr Creative Commons

The role of coal as an energy source is diminishing in this country.  Ten years ago, half of the electricity in this country came from burning coal, but today, that number has dropped to one third. The coal companies have claimed that the Obama administration is waging a WAR on Coal .   But sustainability commentator Bob Brecha isn’t so sure.

All through the presidential campaign, we heard  the candidates talking about changes in American energy policy, and frequently, we hear references to a war on coal.   There’s no doubt that government policies are turning away from coal – but it’s a more complicated than saying the US government is waging a war on coal.   

Consider this:  Historically, the biggest coal companies have gotten a real sweetheart deal from the federal government.  According to a Greenpeace report this year, much of the coal mined by these companies has come from federal lands  - and the companies pay only pennies per ton for that right.  We are essentially giving away resources to these companies as they cause damages to society worth tens of billions  of dollars a year.  That hardly describes a war on coal. 

In the past few years, several reports have been published about the true cost to society of coal – and other fossil fuels.  Even if you ignore the impacts of climate change caused by the eh release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, the so-called external costs are significant. 

A National Academy of Sciences report found that health and other effects of coal-fired  electricity costs us about 60 billion dollars a year – mostly from the dirtiest plants.  

Another report found the costs to be ten times higher – making coal electricity more expensive than any other source of energy we uses. 

A lot of times you’ll hear utilities and other defenders of fossil fuels say we should let the market decide which fuel to use. However for markets to work efficiently all of the relevant costs have to be taken into account.  When you do that, coal doesn’t look so good.

So coal is expensive to our society.

Since fracking began in earnest in this country – natural gas prices have fallen.  And  when the prices fell, there were plenty of power plants available to use it.  No matter what you think of fracking, once the decision was made to allow it in the US,   the use of gas increased – displacing coal.  It was market factors – and deregulation in the energy sector – not regulations meant to strangle coal production and use – that began to displace it. 

A hundred years ago, there were 750 thousand workers in the coal industry in the United States, about 2% of the entire workforce.  By the 1990's, there were fewer that 100 thousand jobs in coal mining and an even smaller number working in coal fired electricity plants.  So coal companies themselves purged jobs in their own industry – in the name of economic efficiency. 

In Ohio today – there are only about 3000  coal mining jobs left.  And all around the country, the jobs in wind and solar energy are comparable or higher than the totals for coal.  The world is choosing energy sources other than coal.  The world is choosing energy sources other than coal. 

The use of coal as an energy source pushed industrialization in this country – and created wealth here and and around the world.  But we now know the negative costs of that coal and how to move beyond it.  And that’s what must happen in the next decade or two. 

The coal industry has been waging an environmental war on US.  But the way ahead should include not only new sources of energy that are currently available, but also new job policies to help those who are harmed by the changes that are happening in our energy system. 

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha