Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Big Coal Fights Back (And So Does Black Lung)

We've noted recently that coal, long the dominant power behind electricity generation, is losing market share big time to natural gas because of the recent low price of gas.  Case in point is Patriot Coal's declaration of bankruptcy yesterday.  Gas prices are an immediate problem for coal, but there's an even bigger problem on the horizon as the federal government is finally taking a hard look at some of the externalities of burning coal, from strip mining large swaths of Appalachia to the high levels of carbon and particulate pollution emitted by burning coal.

But Big Coal was never one to turn a cheek when faced with a problem - just ask the miners who have tried to unionize over the past hundred years.  Now Big Coal is loudly positioning itself as a job creator, particularly in reaction to increased attention to "mountaintop removal" mining (a.k.a. strip mining).

Hmm, when did strip mining with gigantic power equipment become a huge job generator?

But Big Coal can't hide from its poor record of protecting the health and welfare of its workers or people living near its facilities, but that won't stop it from trying to obscure the facts.  It is employing advertising and good old intimidation to push its message in coal country, especially during this election season.  The ironic thing is that some of the evangelical supporters of coal mining - the workers - are the people most vulnerable to being victimized by it.

Add to the parade of bad news for coal news that the dreaded disease black lung is coming back among mine workers.  What is this, the 1960's?  In the autopsies of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, 24 had sufficient remaining lung tissue to examine, and more than two-thirds of these deceased miners had evidence of black lung disease (a.k.a. "coal miners pneumoconiosis"), including a 33 year old.  As if working underground weren't dangerous enough, miners are being struck by a disease that was supposed to have been addressed 40 years ago.

It boggles the mind that natural gas is being treated as a pariah in Appalachia when for the last century the area has been dealing with terrible pollution from coal mines (everything from methane in water wells (not from fracking), polluted surface water, strip mining, etc.), while workers risk their lives in mining the stuff without adequate protections.

But if Big Coal wants to talk about the big new job creator in the neighborhood, it doesn't have far to look because it's the new neighbor, natural gas.  No fossil fuel is perfect, but gas is cleaner that coal by a long stretch and mining gas is a hell of a lot safer and cleaner than mining coal.  Anyone who tells you different is lying to you.  And it's also a growth industry, current low prices notwithstanding.

The natural gas industry will never be friends with coal, but if it does want to make a bunch of new friends, it needs to set up a free training academy to re-train coal miners to work on gas rigs.  Hey, come be a part of the new energy wave sweeping the country!  It's cleaner than coal, you get to see the sunshine all day, and it's a hell of a lot safer to mine.

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