This week, the press ran stories about the man who will soon be sworn in as Virginia’s 72nd governor hailing “clean coal” as “the answer to putting [Virginia] coal miners back to work.”
Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe’s claim that “we need to build on the assets we have” by using carbon capture technology paints a worrying picture of a fossil fuel-based economy dominating Southwest Virginia’s future for decades to come.
Rules to reduce carbon emission from new and existing coal plants are coming. The notion that experimental carbon-capture controls will help reverse the down-trending coal market is a catchy talking point, but isn’t a better goal to make coal communities healthier and more resilient rather than maximize coal company profit? Wouldn’t growing new sources of reliable, affordable energy matter more to the region in the long-term than prolonging fast and furious mining and burning of coal?
For an analogy, I think of a dieter who, believing he’s turning over a new leaf, plops down on the couch with giant bowl of low-calorie potato crisps, a bag of “lite” puffed-corn cheese poofs, and a 20-ounce diet soda to wash it down. He’s found snacks engineered to taste good although the customary oils and sugars are absent. When it’s all gone, he has satisfied his urge to munch without maxing out his daily calorie count. Great plan, right?
Maybe … if weight were the only measure of health. But it isn’t, and carbon pollution isn’t the only measure of coal’s impact on Virginia. Continuing to mine and burn Virginia coal will still cause serious problems: more destructive mountaintop removal, toxic mining waste, air and water pollution from power plants, and as southwestern Virginia feels the worst effects of deferring our clean energy future.
There are numerous risks to banking on a single industry to support a region, particularly when it receives state-backed support to the exclusion of other sectors that would better improve the health of the community. Cutting carbon emissions is an important end-goal, probably the most important priority of our time, but that’s not all there is to it. Shackling southwestern Virginia’s future to coal unfairly limits what the region’s talented and hardworking people can achieve.
Coal does not have to be the last chapter of Appalachia’s story if resources are put toward job training for other industries instead, home weatherization and wind turbine construction, for instance, and if leaders focus on overcoming the obstacles to economic diversity by truly serving the public interest.
Just because a certain food won’t make you obese doesn’t mean you can live on it forever. Just because something like carbon-capture technology comes along that might make burning coal a little cleaner, doesn’t make it a long-term solution for a richly beautiful region that deserves a diverse, sustainable economy.