Environment Writing

No Going Back to Coal

Coal Mine Demonstrators Going Down – 1950

On Aug. 10, 2016, Donald Trump appeared at a campaign event about 50 miles from my father’s home place in southwestern Virginia. He asserted coal miners would have one “last shot” in the election, cautioning that the coal industry would be nonexistent if Hillary Clinton won the election.

“Their jobs have been taken away, and we’re going to bring them back, folks. If I get in, this is what it is,” Trump said.

How do you tell if the president is lying? Check to see if his lips are moving.

There was no last shot. The coal industry is dying and the president’s efforts haven’t and won’t change that.

It is easy to dismiss his comments as campaign bluster. However, real lives are at stake and young couples are leaving Appalachia to find work in other professions and make a life. We are all driven by the need to make a living. Despite strong personal history and traditions in a place, the economics of living there may cause us to leave as it is doing in coal country where mining jobs continue to be in decline.

U.S. coal consumption is projected to decline by nearly four percent in 2018 to the lowest level since 1979, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Tuesday. At year-end, appetite for coal will be a staggering 44 percent below 2007 levels according to NBC News.

The cost per kilowatt hour of electricity generated by new solar arrays is less than those generated in existing coal-fired power plants. Cheap natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing has taken new coal-fired power plants off the drawing board. Right or wrong, the power industry is switching to gas. India, one of the top ten global carbon dioxide emitters, has cancelled plans to build nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants with the price for solar electricity “free falling” to levels once considered impossible, according to Ian Johnston at the Independent.

There are no easy answers for people impacted by our changing energy economy. Families that relied on coal extraction to make a life will have to revisit their choices regardless of what the president does or says.

When I was coming up the home where I spent ten formative years had recently been heated by coal. When my parents bought it the large gravity furnace in the basement had been converted to natural gas. It was an inefficient way to heat our home, but it was very reliable, and natural gas was less expensive and more convenient than coal trucks plying the alley behind our house to deliver. There is no going back to coal in home heating, or anywhere else.

The sooner we generate our electricity from renewable sources, the better we reduce greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere. No amount of presidential bluster can save the old energy economy, nor would we want to. Our politics isn’t there yet, but we will act on climate change. There is an existential urgency that we do.