Since the late 18th century, when it emerged as a source of heating and, later, steam power, coal has brought untold benefits to mankind. Even today, coal generates almost 45 percent of the world's power. But now, the coal industry is at a crossroads, faced with pressure from environmental groups, public health and safety concerns and dwindling support from congress. Churches, universities and other large institutions have publicly divested from coal company stocks, threatening their toehold on Wall Street. With coal painted as the black-hatted villain of carbon emissions, it’s easy to forget how essential it was to fueling prosperity during America’s industrial age.
“Cheap energy certainly is one of the ways that we lift people out of poverty,” says Frank Wolak, a Stanford economist. Wolak points out that between 1870 and 1915, the increased consumption of coal in the United States directly correlates with an increase in GDP. “If you fast-forward to 100 years later, you look at China, you see exactly the same pattern, which is a rapid increase in coal consumption and a rapid increase in GDP in China,” he adds. “It does deliver essentially rapid economic growth, simply because it’s a very cheap source of energy.”
But as we’ve seen over the past 100 years, coal production also delivers greenhouse gases, lung disease and environmental devastation. It’s clear that it’s time to wean ourselves, and our planet, off of coal.
Bruce Nilles heads the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign to stop coal production and exportation. “We have 13,000 people a year dying prematurely from relying on an old, dirty, inefficient fuel source,” he told the Climate One audience. “Today, the choice is between clean, affordable electricity, like wind and solar, which is actually developing and providing more jobs today than in the coal mining sector. So our job ahead of us is overcoming the political barriers that the coal industry has put on our political process to make this transition as fast as possible, so that we don't have to trade-off providing electricity and people's health.”
But even as Americans are pushing for cleaner energy, demand for coal has been growing in other parts of the world, particularly China and India. One survival strategy for the industry could be for coal producers to cut their losses here, and focus on shipping their product overseas to power growing nations. But that solution will come back to haunt us, warns Nilles.
“We sit on top of 25% of all the coal in the world,” he says. “We know that if we burn that, our planet is toast. So we have a simple responsibility. Do we allow that to get mined at enormous cost to us? Shipped through our communities with a lot of coal dust along the way, and then ship it overseas so that we have the situation today where coal being burned in China is polluting us here in California?...it makes absolutely no sense for us to be thinking about shipping coal overseas and hurting ourselves, hurting the planet, and obviously contributing to air pollution in China as well.”
Frank Wolak vehemently disagrees, warning that if we ban exports, China will just get its coal from somewhere else. Instead, he believes, what the U.S. should do is put a price on carbon. “If you price carbon, you will certainly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you prevent coal exports, you'll do nothing to stop greenhouse gas emissions globally.
“I mean, simply jawboning and saying, ‘you can't export’ is not going to change the fact that all the coal is going to get consumed. And there's many other countries in the world willing to sell China the coal.”
The good news is that China may already be curtailing its coal dependence, as author Richard Martin points out. “In fact, China's coal consumption was flat last year, after growing at a high percentage rate for decades,” he says. “And there’s a report [that came out] last year called Peak Coal in China, saying that actually the use of coal in China could peak by 2020 or so.”
Martin is the author of “Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet.” Martin traveled from the Appalachias to rural China to interview those involved in the coal industry, from workers to coal barons, and those affected by its production. Martin reports seeing a shift in attitude, away from coal and towards renewables -- even in coal-dependent communities such as Craig, Colorado. That town recently built a solar garden, he says, “that is literally in the smokestack of the big 20-mile coal plant, right there in the middle of Craig.”
Any discussion of the demise of coal leads, inevitably, to the issue of jobs. In researching his book, Martin talked with families of miners who go back generations. “Certainly, the miners are angry, the miners are defensive. They see this livelihood that has supported them for generations evaporating, and they don't know what they're going to do.”
To make matters worse, the industry itself is abandoning its workers. Mechanization has resulted in layoffs. And as the market for coal is shrinking, the coal mining industry has eviscerated the unions, leaving workers nowhere to turn for support. “These workers are being laid off with no pensions and no rights, and a lot of healthcare costs,” says Nilles. “We, as a country, owe it -- just as we did to the loggers in the Pacific Northwest, the tobacco farmers in the south. We need, as a country, to come together and help Appalachia and the workers make this transition with healthcare and pensions and say, "Coal may have served us well over the last hundred years, but it is time, it is long due and over time, to move on as fast as we possibly can.”
What’s next for the coal industry, and the thousands of workers it employs? Having burned bright for nearly 150 years, is it time to close up the mines, shut down the plants and let renewables fuel the planet’s future?