There shouldn’t be ‘welfare for coal’

In the past week Donald Trump has issued a directive to Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, requiring transmission operators to purchase electricity from nuclear-generated and coal-generated power plants. The claimed rationale for this directive is to provide “resilience” for a secure system of electrical generation, but most experts regard this explanation as a false narrative.

In a recent article in this Viewpoint feature of the Marietta Times, the writer presented persuasively the argument against subsidizing nuclear power. As is the case for nuclear power, the propping up of the coal industry is misguided and poorly chosen option for federal intervention. The portion of electrical generation from coal has dropped from 49% to 30% nationally in the last 10 years. In 1979 there were 250,000 jobs in coal-related industries; in 2016 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were only about 52,000. Jobs in the field of solar energy number approximately 260,000, and another 100,000 jobs exist in wind-power industries. The number of solar-related jobs has increased 82%, and the number of wind-power related jobs has risen 100% in just three years. according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. In countries outside the U.S. job growth in these two renewable energy fields has increased at even higher rates.

Although the coal industry has tried to promulgate the notion that there has been a “war on coal,” represented by federal regulations, there are really two factors accounting for the decline of coal: the relatively less expensive resource of natural gas and automation of coal mining (the transition from manual labor to extract coal to huge extracting machines, which do the job more efficiently). Trump’s recent directive leads to another characterization to describe the effort to resurrect coal–we now have “welfare for coal,” that is, a strategy that defies market forces and, by federal decree, places the burden of propping up coal and nuclear energy on consumers, who will ultimately pay in billions of dollars through their increased electric rates for this unneeded subsidy.

The inevitable truth about the future of coal is that it is the “eight-track tape” of our array of energy resources–it is outdated, irrelevant, and not cost effective. Coal is expensive in terms of its health impact on miners; black lung disease or “coal miners’ pneumoconiosis” accounts for 125,000 deaths per year (as of 2010). Coal’s wider negative impact, however, affects all of us. Coal is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, most often from coal-fired power plants. Since 1990 carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 30%, and in April 2014 carbon in the atmosphere reached the unprecedented milestone figure of 400 parts/million. Human-induced climate change, which we are all experiencing already is an idea which is endorsed by 97% of the scientific community and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is happening before our eyes in the form of acidification of the oceans, disappearance of glaciers, rise of sea levels, desertification, increased intensity of storms, and a global temperature rise of 10-18 degrees Fahrenheit over 100 years. The major culprits driving climate change are fossil fuels, particularly coal, and the countries producing the most emissions from coal-fired power plants are the U.S. and China. Why can’t we resolve to transition coal-fired power plants to natural-gas power, an abundant resource, especially here in southeastern Ohio, as a bridge to carbon-free energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal power?

In moving away from coal as an energy resource, we need to treat those communities in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southeast Ohio in a humane and supportive manner. This means, for example, providing job training to move the labor force from coal-related jobs to 21st century occupations in employment sectors like tourism, advanced manufacturing, and renewable energy.

Apologists and unquestioning supporters of the coal industry, such as Congressman Bill Johnson, Donald Trump, and Rick Perry are locking us into unhealthy, expensive, and environmentally destructive policies by promoting this myth that federal regulations are the source of problems in the coal business. There was no “war on coal,” and there should not be “welfare for coal,” but what there should be is a national strategy of environmental sustainability to phase out coal as source of energy in favor of cheaper natural gas in the short run and in favor of renewable energy in the long run.

George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Now retired, he is a volunteer for the Devola MultiUse Trail Committee, Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith, and Harvest of Hope. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action group.