The Coal Industry: Talking The High Road, Taking The Low Road

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The Coal Industry: Talking The High Road, Taking The Low Road  Posted: September 10, 2001


The Bush Energy Plan was, given the ties of the President and Vice President to the energy industries, predictably lop-sided in emphasis on fossil fuel production rather than efficiency in energy use and environmental protection. The plan brushed aside evidence that investment in efficiency helps the economy grow with less pollution and that further investment could greatly reduce energy demand and lower pollution impacts and costs while save consumers money, in favor of an energy plan which promised to lower environmental protection and increase supply-side subsidies to the industries whose contributions propelled the Administration into office. The Bush Administration has retreated somewhat, restoring cuts in efficiency research, but the plan remains top-heavy with proposed subsidies to fossil fuels in both money and environmental quality.


A comprehensive energy strategy will include new power generation capacity and new transmission investments. But with adequate investment in efficiency, new capacity needs and pollution can be substantially reduced, saving billions of dollars for the public without sacrificing quality of life.


Buoyed by the Bush Energy Plan s emphasis on increased production from fossil fuels and dismissal of investment in energy efficiency, the coal industry is hoping to reshape it s image as the fuel of tomorrow inexpensive and clean. One mining association refers to coal as buried sunshine.


There is little question that coal will remain a significant component of the fuel picture for the near future. Most of the coal mined feeds utility plants, and all but a small fraction of the generating capacity in the Commonwealth is coal-fed. But coal remains the most problematic of the fossil fuels imposing substantial costs on land, air and water resources for which there must be a full accounting in the energy budget.


The challenge for the coal industry, reeling from the massive slurry release in Martin County, is to move beyond the P.R. campaign projecting an image of a benign fuel with historic problems, to come to terms with and assume responsibility for the significant current off-budget costs that the extraction and combustion of coal creates.


Coal is not alone as the recipient of direct and indirect subsidies that mask the full costs of the fuel federal law caps nuclear plant accident liability; significant government sops in the form of tax breaks and military expenditures are part of the full cost of oil and gasoline. As with other fuel sources, the bill for coal is paid disproportionately by those who live downhill, downwind and downstream of mines, tipples and power plants. For some, including workers injured or killed in mine-related accidents or afflicted with black lung disease, and families disrupted due to mine blasting, subsidence, truck traffic and flooding, the hidden cost is too dear and too near the heart.


But coal is unparalleled as an industry prone to blame others, regulators, the federal government, environmentalists, God, for its failures, and to seek public subsidies while opposing public accountability. The challenge for coal is not to recast its image, but to rebuild public confidence and earn public support by improving its performance.


The coal industry has always been a bottom-line bunch fighting tooth and nail to oppose or delay worker safety, health and environmental regulation. What advances have been made in mine regulation have come after extensive opposition, and with the oft-heard cry that it will shut down the industry if we are required to do ________ (fill in the blank). There has never been a time that the industry has embraced reasonable regulation needed to protect water quality, air quality, or to provide some modicum of justice to neighbors.


The industry has opportunities to earn public confidence. In the face of avoidable and sometimes catastrophic costs associated with disposal of coal slurry in waste dams, the industry could advocate and embrace the use of other, better technologies that are in use domestically and abroad, rather than the cheapest approach moving towards filter-press technologies or backstowing waste underground rather than constructing dams of coarse refuse and filling them with mud and coal fines.


Rather than end-dumping and wing-dumping excessive amounts of mine spoil - the soil and rock removed from above coal seams, into headwater streams, the industry could advocate the maximum safe retention of the soil and rock on the mined area and the use of excess material to reclaim abandoned mines, with the goal of reducing the size and number of fills in valleys.


Rather than anticipatorily destroying forested habitat in advance of obtaining mine permits in order to avoid obligations to protect riparian habitat, the industry could earn the respect of the public and regulators alike by showing restraint and respect for fish and wildlife values and habitat before and during mining, and not just the game species that are restocked on post-mined areas with great fanfare. Rather than pushing to eliminate permit blocking for corporate sham operations owned by violators of mining laws, the industry could accept that those who own or are owned by companies with violations should not be getting new permits until they come clean and fix their existing damage.


Rather than campaigning to reduce the number of state attorneys in the agency that oversees mine reclamation, the industry could recognize that fair and full enforcement of the mine laws is a legitimate function of government and that the best defense to enforcement actions is compliance with the law.


Rather than touting clean coal technology publicly while working behind the scenes to enlarge loopholes that allow the dirtiest coal-fired plants to continue to upgrade their capacity and to operate without meeting adequate controls on the many toxic pollutants released during coal combustion, the industry could embrace the upgrading of these plants and the most rigorous controls on the four major pollutants of concern for coal combustion oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and mercury. Rather than continue a decades-long dance of denial regarding global warming and acid rain, the industry could recognize its role in pollution problems and its obligation to address regional and global pollution caused in part by coal combustion.


Rather than disrupting lives and communities with excessive blasting and coal truck traffic using neighborhood streets rather than dedicated haul roads, the industry could lessen significantly the impact of operations on neighbors.


The coal industry is not monolithic and over 24 years I have known a few operators who buck the trend and make the lessening of their impact on the environment and neighbors a priority. They have shown me that the costs coal imposes can be lessened or avoided in many cases. The industry could take steps to earn public confidence and justify the many subsidies it currently enjoys by taking the high road, not just talking about it.


By Kentucky Resources Council on 09/10/2001 5:32 PM
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