Coal’s Cost

In 2012, the United States owed nearly 40% of its electric power generation to the combustion of coal, and nearly a fifth of its total energy consumption. Coal, however, has the highest carbon content of any fossil fuel, so it yields significant carbon dioxide emissions, as well as other unwanted greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals. In other words, as it is currently used coal is a dirty energy source—that cannot be denied.

Thus, you and many others may think, “Well, the US should transition to a cleaner source, or sources, such as natural gas, wind, solar, etc.” This type of transition is very realizable. Natural gas, while still a fossil fuel, has great potential to dominate the energy sector without the emissions of coal, while combinations of different renewables promise incredibly low emissions. The decision only seems to get easier when we look at the challenges of coal: coal is unmistakably damaging to the natural environment and therefore unsustainable, “clean coal” is an oxymoron, and cap-and-trade policy for carbon emissions is long overdue. But, if we truly want to adopt a holistic view of sustainability and make decisions accordingly, we need to look beyond just emissions. We need to dig deeper into the potentially damaging effects a transition away from coal could have on its constituents—those workers with the most at stake if the energy source becomes obsolete.

Carbon emissions from the United States are concentrated in Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana, where the majority of the nation’s coal mines and coal-fired plants are located. Moreover, states that depend upon coal-powered electricity, but have little potential for coal power, such as Texas and Florida, are among the greatest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States. Thus, because coal mining and electricity generation depend so heavily upon the resources of the surrounding natural environment, there is a great asymmetry to coal usage and mining geographically, and in terms of population.

Sure, coal is an asymmetric energy source, but what implications does this have politically? Because the each state possesses equal representation within the United States Senate, attempts to create a cap-and-trade system on coal to reduce emissions are historically unsuccessful. This equal representation in the Senate means that, while a national standard mandating the use of less coal might be attractive to Senators from a state like Rhode Island, Senators from a state more economically dependent upon coal have sufficient power to block any progress.

Accentuating the political difficulty of instilling a cap-and-trade system are the personal challenges using less coal would mean for workers in the mining industry. While mining employment has fallen, a miner can still earn up to $80,000 per year, far higher than other careers typically available to citizens without college degrees in mining areas. Amongst job losses in West Virginia and Kentucky, many workers, finding it difficult to accept the pay cuts in other professions, move to areas where the coal market still booms. For many workers this means the devastating loss of the remote but tightly knit mining communities they have formed; as one miner stated, “It’s a way of living to us, it’s not just a job.”

It should come of little surprise that a decision at a national level—to regulate emissions from coal, or to replace the source with renewables—comes with great challenges. In this case of transitioning away from coal, unlike some of renewable sources, these impasses are not physical, but rather social. They concern instead how our governmental system manages the effects of asymmetric policy, and the severe hits a small community can take for the benefit of the whole. Ultimately, the lesson may not be that we should abandon efforts to remove coal from the grid, but rather that we should find ways to account for all of the negative effects energy policy may have on American citizens.

Image Credit: David Coil via Ground Truth Trekking


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