A few weeks ago, listeners of Sea Change Radio, a syndicated show and podcast covering the shift to sustainability, were treated to an impromptu debate and discussion between Appalachian Voices’ Matt Wasson and host Alex Wise.
We know full well the ecological devastation and economic inequites caused by mountaintop removal coal mining, and it seems Wise does too. But you’ll likely enjoy hearing him challenge Matt with an assortment of industry talking points, most of which have been parroted by Congress and the media over the last several months.
“Do you cringe when you hear the term clean coal?,” Wise asks at the beginning of the show. But it’s not just the concept that coal is clean Matt takes on. Another is Central Appalachian coal’s “abundance.” As recent as a few years ago, coal produced around half of America’s electricity. But as mining conditions continue to deteriorate and the most accessible coal seams are mined out. For each of the past 15 years, the Energy Information Administration has dramatically over-projected Appalachian coal production.
Central Appalachian coal reserves are declining, and that should surprise no one. Still, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney has gotten a lot of press recently for simply saying “we mined the low-hanging fruit a long time ago.”
“Affordability” is one you’ll hear a lot too. On one hand, it’s true, coal has been cheap to burn for a long time. But it’s easily to see that the true cost of coal is not represented on your electric bill. The price of producing electricity from coal is going up, especially in the east where the bulk of our electricity has been produced from burning Appalachian coal. In the meantime, the cost and feasibility of renewables will continue to fall. And although rules regulating greenhouse gas emissions do not affect operating or permitted coal plants, a significant portion of the nation’s aging fleet is being switched to natural gas, a trend that is expected to continue for several years. Natural gas prices could go back up, but for the time being, “coal is just being out-competed in the marketplace.”
There is never a better time than the present to pursue avenues for economic diversification in Appalachia. But everyday mountaintop removal continues to be used to mine coal, the hurdles the region faces grow larger. We’re lucky though, as Matt points out early on: “We aren’t in a situation where we have to choose between mountains and jobs or mountains and a reliable source of energy.” And we never will be.