Coal is a curse. It’s also a blessing. It’s the reason the railroads punched through the mountains and brought our forebears into a wilderness. It has killed us, maimed us, left us gasping for breath. It has also put food on our tables, sent generation after generation of our kids to school, and given us the pride of knowing that miners keep the nation’s lights on, even if few Americans thank them when they flip the switch.
It’s a curse; it’s a blessing; and it’s an industry in deep trouble. Not just because the Environmental Protection Agency is on its case. Coal is in trouble partly because the coal industry has always preferred to buy politicians than pay for modernization, and the bill has come due. But it’s in trouble mainly because natural gas is cheaper to produce (thanks in part to hydraulic fracking, a curse in its own right) and burns cleaner. That’s why, after decades when coal supplied half the power used in the U.S., it’s now down to 32 percent.
The industry would be close to collapsing if it couldn’t export coal to some countries that lack abundant natural gas. Bottom line: U.S. coal is on borrowed time. And, as usual, the people whose livelihoods and communities depend on coal are the first victims. In our corner of the nation we’ve watched thousands of good-paying mining jobs vanish in just the past few years. Those jobs are not coming back, and flipping burgers at $7.25 an hour is no substitute.
What could be worse? Snake oil. This year we’ve been hearing from a presidential candidate who promises to save the industry and create jobs. “I like coal!” he says at every opportunity. And maybe he really does — although, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he didn’t hesitate to go after a coal plant whose owners were fighting environmental regulation and threatening layoffs if forced to clean up. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” the governor said. “And that plant kills people!”
That was then. Today Mitt Romney champions coal and blames Barack Obama for its troubles. But, love him or hate him, Obama is not the problem, nor is his much-criticized EPA. The problem is energy economics. Subtract the cost of environmental regulation and coal would still be costlier to produce, transport, and burn than natural gas. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s Nick Atkins, CEO of American Electric Power, one of coal’s biggest consumers and strongest allies, flatly warning his stockholders a few months ago: “I can tell you there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future of gas.”
Atkins might have added that clean coal technologies aren’t about to rescue us either. Because carbon capture and sequestration has proven to be much costlier than expected, not a single major cleancoal plant is on-line yet — and orders for several have been cancelled, because they can’t compete against natural gas. Meanwhile, about one of every four existing coal plants is expected to shut down within the next five years. We can do the math, and we shudder at what’s coming.
It’s ironic that the one strategy that might improve job prospects for miners is one that neither candidate seems enthusiastic about: a massive, sustained public-private investment in U.S. infrastructure. We desperately need to overhaul, replace, and modernize our crumbling highways, bridges, public transportation, schools, clinics, and manufacturing facilities. Doing so might not create lots of mining jobs, but miners are resourceful and can build as well as drill — if given the opportunity. Just create some good heavy-equipment jobs and watch what happens.
Obama considered trying to get a huge infrastructure program enacted despite the opposition of politicians like Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell and Hal Rogers but backed off after listening to advisors who worried more about the deficit than about people. In a second term he might be more bold. Romney talks about investing in infrastructure but only indirectly, by way of enacting tax cuts for upperincome people and hoping that bestowing more money upon those who already have plenty will somehow spur trickle-down economic growth. Good luck with that.
Based on an unscientific sampling of yard signs, bumper stickers and conversations, our guess is that Romney supporters outnumber Obama partisans around here by more than five to one. How they vote is up to them. But let’s not be suckers. If you’re planning to vote for Mitt Romney because of his newly kindled passion for coal, you might want to consider whether, as president, he could overcome basic energy economics. If he can’t, coal’s downward slide will continue, no matter who’s in the White House. And if all Romney can offer in response is his current economic program — job creation through tax cuts — we’ll be in for some very hard times.