Front Porch Blog

Appalachia: National Sacrifice Zone

Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, just wrote a terrific editorial in the New York Times called Our Black Future, which touches on the growing need and want of coal in supplying America energy.

Now that the need for greater energy independence has become a universal political slogan, every county commissioner in America has an idea of how we can break free of our Middle Eastern oil shackles: ethanol, hydrogen, solar panels on the roof of every Hummer! Still, it’s hard not to be optimistic when you’re standing in front of a 70-foot seam of coal. It’s not hype; it’s real. Is the bridge to energy independence paved in black?

One danger is that now, with the increasing price of oil and natural gas, many forward thinking power-players are looking to a new method of coal production called “coal-to-liquid” production.

Firstly, we are switching burning one fossil fuel to burning another. Every second grader in the country now knows that burning fossil fuels is awful for human health and the environment. If we are going to be making large scale investments in energy infrastructure, it needs to be in renewables, and it ESPECIALLY doesn’t need to be in coal.

From 1984 to 2004, the average coal miner’s per-shift productivity more than doubled, while wages declined by 20 percent (adjusted for inflation). If we simply increase consumption, we will be condemning large areas of the country, including eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, to national sacrifice zones.

Add that phrase to the mountaintop removal vernacular – NATIONAL SACRIFICE ZONE.

Goodell points out that in WWII, Nazis worked feverishly to try and find a way to power their tanks with coal (doesn’t that make it a bad idea by default?)

One of the worst parts about coal-to-liquid is that it uses three barrels of water for every one barrel of fuel it produces. In South Africa, a company called Sasol produces around 150,000 barrells of diesel from coal every day. That means that they also use 450,000 barrels of fresh water on a continent where people die of thirst every day.

Governors such as Montana’a Brian Schweitzer are putting their considerable political capital behind selling the coal-to-liquid technology to the middle of the road and more progressive folks around the country.

Coal will play a part in our energy equation, probably for quire a long time. And that’s OK. But we do not need to beinvesting more and more in coal. Every time they say “clean coal,” remember that this is what coal looks like…

I’ll let Goodell wrap it up. He does it well…

The biggest problem with our bounty of coal is not what it does to our mountains or the atmosphere, but what it does to our minds. It preserves the illusion that we don’t have to change our lives. Given the profound challenges we face with the end of cheap oil and the arrival of global warming, this is a dangerous fantasy.
If we had less coal, we might replace the 19th-century notion that we can drill and burn our way to prosperity with a more modern view of efficiency and sustainability. Instead of spending billions of dollars each year to subsidize tapping out yet another finite resource, we’d pour that money into solar energy, biofuels and other renewable resources.
We’d be creating jobs in new industries, not protecting them in old ones. And we’d understand that the real fuel of the future is not coal but creativity.

Raised on the banks of the Tennessee River, JW's work to create progress in his home state and throughout Appalachia has been featured on the Rachel Maddow Show, The Daily Kos and Grist. He served first as Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate and then Tennessee director until leaving to pursue a career in medicine in 2012.