23 September 2013
Is President Obama waging a war on coal? That’s the allegation from the coal industry and its champions in Congress as the Administration cracks down on carbon pollution.
The “war on coal” theme came up again last week when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft rule to limit carbon emissions from power plants. But who’s warring whom? Let’s think about this.
The evolution of the U.S. economy – of any robust economy, in fact – is a story of invention and obsolescence. New technology comes along; old technology fades away. The people who depend on the old technology don’t like it. Until they adjust, they are victims of progress.
So it is with coal. The coal industry, including the black-faced, black-lunged miners who risk their lives every day to keep our lights on, deserves enormous credit for where we are today: one of the world’s most prosperous people.
But two new realities have emerged that are redefining progress: Coal is the dirtiest of the fuels responsible for global climate change, and we are finding much better ways to keep the lights on. The idea that the Obama Administration is waging a war against coal is like accusing Henry Ford of making war against buggy whips, or Apple of warring against conventional phones and typewriters. EPA’s new rules aren’t designed to kill the coal industry; they are a challenge for the industry to get clean or get gone.
If the government has finally decided we can’t wait for market forces to do the job, it’s because the industry has become a threat to our health and our future. Buggy whips didn’t inflict children with asthma, and telephones didn’t alter the Earth’s climate. We have used so much coal that its pollution is damaging the atmosphere and inflicting hurt on people around the world, including those who’ve never used the stuff. Coal has become too much of a good thing. To use the industry’s war analogy, it has become a weapon of mass destruction, a type of chemical warfare against our children and us. Its destructive force is irreversible as well as global. We can be sure that our President gets no pleasure from forcing the industry to face these harsh new realities. It’s his job, by law and on behalf of us all.
This is little comfort to the miners and the truckers and the railroad workers who dig coal out of the ground and bring it to market. They see themselves as collateral damage and in fact, they are. They will remain collateral damage until Congress and the industry’s leaders stop fighting progress and focus on a just and compassionate transition to cleaner fuels. That transition opens new opportunities for us all, including the families and communities whose economies are built on a resource that now must be retired.
A new generation of energy resources is moving into place to keep the lights on. Or, more accurately, it is an ancient family of resources that we forgot how to use and now must reemploy. Sunlight, wind, water, geothermal energy, bioenergy and other clean and sustainable resources are our ubiquitous technically recoverable reserves. Renewables are ready.
It is not only the coal industry that must adjust. It means big changes for other industries, too, including our traditional electric utilities. Some of them also believe they are in a death spiral rather than on the threshold of opportunity. The change we must make – and that in fact already has begun — runs deep. Our dependence on carbon energy has been legislated and capitalized into the fabric our economy, and that makes the change harder and more painful.
But it is a necessary transition and America has a moral obligation to lead it, unless we are willing to be the generation of cowards that leaves our children with lives of suffering and instability. That’s a legacy that President Obama and so many of the rest find cannot accept. The coal miners in Appalachia probably would not want to leave that legacy either, if we honored the role they have played in our prosperity and they had a suitable alternative for taking care of their families.
As sure as the sun rises every morning, renewables are the clean and inexhaustible fuels of the 21st century economy. All that stands in the way are the soldiers of the status quo who are warring against the next big and necessary step in our progress and in the lives of those people around the world – one of every five of us — who live in energy poverty with no lights to keep on.
The Obama Administration has not declared a war on coal. The leaders of the coal industry and their message machine are waging a war against the future we want. The Obama Administration, on behalf of us all, is finally fighting back.