Destructive coal mining no basis for any economy

It’s awfully hard to make coal pretty.

When you dig deep for it, you risk the lives of miners, as seen in the tragedy at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine. If you mine it by lopping off the tops of mountains — as is done in Appalachia — you rape the environment.

When you burn coal for electricity, you fill the air with acid-rain chemicals and asthma-inducing fine particles — that is, unless you install scrubbing devices in the plants. And even if you have scrubbers, the process releases enormous quantities of planet-warming gases. Scientists are working on the technology to capture and bury these gases, but it will be very expensive.

Too bad, because the United States has coal in abundance. There is enough coal in Illinois alone to power the entire nation for the next 200 years, so we are told.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with coal could be lessened with responsible government regulation. But then you have the current administration.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have long “delivered” to the coal industry, which has returned the favor with fat checks. But before we get overly partisan here, let us note that many coal-state Democrats are also avid coddlers of Big Coal.

The administration just issued regulations easing the way for the most appalling means of coal extraction — mountaintop removal. Drive through the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky: Where once stood majestic mountains and hardwood forests, you see rocky stumps on which only grass and brush can grow. The rubble was dumped into the valleys, destroying hundreds of streams.

A federal law from the 1980s forbids mining within 100 feet of a permanent stream, but it has been ignored. The new rules would let the companies continue to pillage the environment, but with less red tape.

“Rather than enforce the law, the administration is changing the law to legitimize an illegal practice,” explains Joe Lovett, head of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, in Lewisburg, W.V.

Again, this is not an all-Republican show. The political establishment in West Virginia is traditionally Democratic and eager to sell the state’s future to coal interests. Sen. Robert Byrd has been at it for 60 years.

Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin recently changed the welcome-to-West-Virginia signs along highways. They now read, “Open for Business,” rather than the older, “Wild and Wonderful.” (It’s certainly getting dicier to employ the official nickname, “The Mountain State.”)

“The new signs are hated,” Lovett says, “and not only by the lefties.”

The idea that this kind of coal mining could be good for an economy is absolutely, 120 percent nuts. West Virginia should be waving its gorgeous scenery in front of workers in nearby Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va. Instead, the state is scaring them off with a mass lunacy that tolerates shearing off mountains and burying streams for a quick buck. Coal mining doesn’t even create many jobs anymore.

Elsewhere, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, has been demanding huge taxpayer subsidies for coal-to-liquids projects that could produce a gasoline substitute. Unfortunately, these fuels produce almost twice as much greenhouse gases as ordinary petroleum.

The big irony here is that if government showed a strong interest in regulating coal — both the extraction and the burning of it — one might say, “Go for it.” But the leadership is simply not there. The Bush administration even opposed giving the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

And so without tougher rules and a technological breakthrough, coal cannot be the answer to our energy prayers. Coal may be cheap, but its environmental price is simply too high.

Froma Harrop is Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is

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