Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coal Struggles in West Virginia

   Tempers are beginning to flare in West Virginia and other coal mining states, probably with good reason.  What's at stake is that the EPA has revoked previously granted permits for mountaintop removal mining.  I think this is one battle in a larger struggle between environmentalists and industrialists, and the environmentalists are winning.  According to statistics from the Energy Information Agency, West Virginia mined 158 million tons of coal in 2008, and in 2009 they mined 137 million tons.  We don't have numbers for 2010, but it will probably be about the same as 2009.  What does it mean if coal production goes down by 21 million tons?  Well, at 62 dollars per ton in 2009. So, in round terrms the loss of production is worth 1.3 billion dollars. That's about 720 bucks for each man, woman and child in the state. That's before you ask about the ripple effect--try making steel without metallurigcal grade coal, or aluminum without electricity.  The impact on the US economy is very significant.

“The truth of the matter is, they’re interrupting every kind of operation,” says Bill Raney, of the West Virginia Coal Association. “The frustration level is enormous.”

   This I think is true.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama talked about raising environmental standards as way of killing off industries such as the fossil fuel industry, with the hope that new "green" technologies would rise to take their place.  Hence, while crowds around America were chanting "Yes We Can!" to coal producing states the message was more like "No You Can't!"  It is relatively easy to destroy domestic industries, less obvious to see where these supposedly green technologies are going to come from.
    The EPA has been a great organization since its creation by President Nixon in 1969.  You have to admit skies are way clearer now and the water is much cleaner.   What is missing is the ability to weigh the needs of the economy and the environment together. 
    Rookie Senator Joe Manchin has authored a bill which would make it harder for the EPA to unilaterally withdraw permits once it grants them..  Had such legislation been in place today, we wouldn't be having these fights now.  In my opinion, this is exactly what is needed.
    I'd  like to know, where is the crisis?  Arch Coal was said to be prepared to invest 250 million dollars in a new mining operation, and now these jobs no longer exist.  That's an economic crisis.

Why was there an environmental crisis so acute that it had to result in revoking exisiting permits and eliminating jobs?  People act like there isn't a fish left in our state.  The opposite is true, however.  If you will visit West Virginia, you will see mile after mile of green mountains and streams and lakes.  If you don't believe me, just pick up a hunting magazine and see what the people say.  Fishing and hunting are both excellent.  Animals are not being wiped out by some environmental crisis. 

If it were really true that the environmental consequence can be greatly reduced by not having mountaintop removal, then it should be phased out slowly, not as if there were an artificial crisis that required immediate action.  There should be an effort to find out whether there are coal seams that might be mined equally well by underground mining rather than mountaintop removal.  Maybe we have such efforts, but if so the studies aren't being publicized well.   

We, the American people acting through our Congress, have set up our Environmental Protection Agency as a necessary watchdog for the environment. In my view, we should not kill this watchdog, but we do need to make sure that he is housebroken.  We don't seem to have the ability to balance economics and environmentalism.  I totally believe that you can have both if you manage them well.  Why can't we have an office that tries to figure out how to solve problems, rather than just  shut down industries?  For example, why can't we have top down instructions that say, "well, we want to grow the American economy by 5% this year, and reduce emissions by 5%."  Then that organization could tell how to best do that. What it means is, radical environmentalism isn't going to get everything they want, but neither is radical free enterprise.  There has to be a sensible middle ground in there someplace where both goals--increasing economic growth while decreasing emissions--can be addressed. 

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