With high gas prices and the coming of Peak Oil, coal is making a big comeback these days. The industry says that it's not a question of whether we'll use coal - we'll need the energy - but how we'll use coal.
Environmentalists disagree. They say that coal is the dirtiest energy source, emitting far more greenhouse gases than natural gas or even oil. Burning coal would speed up dangerous global warming.
But the industry says they've figured out a way to get rid of coal's traditional pollution - "clean coal."
"Technologies have already been developed that are capable of almost entirely eliminating local and regional pollutants from coal-fired power generation - particulates, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide - but they need to be used more widely around the world," according to the World Coal Institute.
Judy Bonds knows something about the coal industry. She is a coal miner's daughter from West Virginia who has faced off against big mining companies. For more than a decade, with a group called Coal River Mountain Watch, she has mobilized communities in the southern part of the state to fight the damage that a new method of strip-mining has caused to their environment.
Bonds, whose father died of black-lung disease after a lifetime in the mines, only came to oppose the industry after she could no longer ignore the damage to her community. One day, in 1993, just after A.T. Massey Coal Co. had begun blasting operations nearby, Bonds saw her grandson standing in the creek behind her home holding a handful of dead fish, killed from toxic mining runoff.
At that point Bonds realized that "the environment is all around us," and that she had to do something to protect the land where her family had lived since the Revolutionary War.
Her story and others are told in a new film, "Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice" (www.blackdiamondsmovie.com). I had a chance to meet Bonds when she accompanied filmmaker Catherine Pancake to Staunton a couple of weeks ago for an advance screening of the film, which tells the story of the new aggressive strip-mining in Southern West Virginia.
Perfected out West and brought to West Virginia in the 1990s, mountaintop removal is used to extract more coal with less effort and at lower cost. Instead of having to dig deep pits into the earth and send down miners to bring the coal back up to the surface, now the companies just locate mountains that contain seams of coal and blow their tops off with tons of explosives. Then the coal, exposed at ground level, can be removed in large quantities using heavy equipment.
For ease of extraction, mountaintop removal makes sense. It's like cracking open an egg, instead of poking a hole in the shell with a pin and trying to suck out the insides. So, if you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, as Stalin said, then strip-mining in West Virginia today has reached truly Stalinistic proportions.
Aside from literally dynamiting the Appalachian range - 20 percent of peaks in Southern West Virginia have been leveled so far - mountaintop removal leaves a big mess when the mining is done, a lunar landscape stripped of its rich forest and rutted with craters.
"Appalachian deciduous forest is the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the U.S. after rainforest," filmmaker Pancake says. "We could consider it a natural treasure or a ripe environment for exploration. It should be valued."
Environmental regulations require the mining companies to return the mining sites to a condition equal to or better than their original state and then to contain the tons of waste rock removed from the coal - "overburden" - to stop toxic pollution from getting into local water supplies.
Unfortunately, these regulations, already inadequate to start with, are not well enforced by a state government that sees environmental protection as a luxury - nearly two-thirds of all business taxes in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, come from coal. As a result, 300,000 acres of forests have been lost while more than 700 miles of streams have been buried.
Activist Bonds says that the mining area around the Big Coal River in the southern part of the state has become a war zone for local residents. Mining now uses 3 million tons of explosives a day. People who live near mines and processing plants have to wear masks to mow their lawns. Soot has blackened once pristine streams and black-washed the outside of homes.
And massive dams, or "impoundments," built to hold back toxic mining slurry strike fear into the towns under their shadow. In 1972, 125 people died when a slurry dam collapsed at Buffalo Creek in Logan County. Another spill in 2000 in Kentucky released 250 million gallons of mining waste and became the worst environmental disaster ever east of the Mississippi. Today, there are 136 such dams in West Virginia that need to be cared for in perpetuity, just as if they were nuclear-waste dumps.
To add insult to injury, though ordinary West Virginians pay a high environmental cost for coal, they gain little economic benefit from it anymore. Over the last 50 years, mining has become more reliant on machinery than on muscle, and coalfield jobs have dropped by 80 percent.
The butt of hillbilly jokes for decades, Appalachia's uniqueness has made it harder for other Americans to relate to the proud and isolated culture of a mountain region that was our nation's first frontier and has now become our last one.
Our apathy has made it easier for mining companies to perpetrate outrages against people and the environment in West Virginia that Americans would not tolerate anywhere else. Yet, the plight of our neighboring state affects us all as the Age of Oil comes to an end and King Coal rises.
First, if mining companies can get away with flouting environmental regulations in Appalachia, they will try to do so elsewhere. That means any place in America with coal, or indeed any natural resource that can be removed for profit, may face a similar fate.
Second, with Peak Oil here and oil supplies beginning their irreversible decline, America and the world are certain to look to coal to fill the gap between dwindling energy supplies and rising demand. Coal is attractive because it can be easily extracted - especially using mountaintop removal - and America has plenty of it, with some estimates putting our supply at 200 years or more under current rates of use. "The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal," an industry exec told The New York Times in April.
That brings us back to "clean" coal. The Bush administration, with coal millionaires as major campaign donors, put $9 billion in subsidies for the industry into the 2005 Energy Bill, with nearly $5 billion of that going to develop clean coal technology.
But the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle process to make coal clean remains largely unproven, and its development has been plagued by mismanagement, waste and failed programs, according to the Government Accountability Office. The industry's failed experiments so far with clean-coal processing plants do not inspire confidence.
"Making coal clean is an oxymoron," Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth, based in Washington, D.C., told me. Whatever the industry claims they can do to eliminate coal's pollution, "the problem is that the regulations aren't in place to regulate carbon sequestration and other waste streams. A lot of this is just talk to put a green veneer over a really dirty energy source."
So without laws requiring it, industry will not go to the extra trouble go make coal clean, assuming this is really possible. And even with the right laws, coal companies' century-long record of flouting environmental and labor regulations shows that we cannot trust them to comply with any new regulations on producing coal cleanly. Pica's group supports moving funding from coal to genuine clean energy sources like wind and solar.
Judy Bonds from West Virginia agrees that we should move away from coal and towards clean, renewable energy. "There is no such thing as 'clean coal,' since it would be impossible to build a plant. The coal industry is now pumping toxic sludge from washing coal at preparation plants into old abandoned mine shafts, and this sludge is leaking into people's underground water wells. In what we know, the stuff they pump underground does not stay."
Bonds goes even further. Since half of America's electricity today comes from coal, she urges any of us who ever flip a light switch to consider our role, as consumers of electricity, in creating a demand for the coal that has brought so much destruction to her part of the world.
"Even if the power company could get marshmallows to come out of the smokestacks," she says, "the coal burned in the plants has our blood all over it. If you can't extract it clean, then it can never be burned clean."
But as cheap oil runs out, won't we need coal, no matter how dirty, as the industry claims?
Energy analysts predict that demand for coal could rise 2 percent per year or more just to meet electricity demand, especially as the price of natural gas, which provides much electricity today, rises. Demand could increase even faster if other industries try to replace oil with coal, particularly to make chemicals and plastics. Even the Air Force is hoping to use synthetic fuel from coal to power its jets.
This is the wrong path. Given the shameful past of the coal industry, their promises that coal can be mined cleanly or burned cleanly ring hollow. We should not bet our energy future on the word of discredited coal barons. There is a better way.
The industry may be right that if demand for electricity continues to rise, America cannot do without coal. Truly practical clean energy sources like solar and wind can supply power on a small scale in the future, but energy analysts agree that no combination of clean energy sources can replace coal within the next decade as a source of electricity if demand rises as they predict.
So that just leaves us with coal, clean or dirty. Unless, of course, we take the option that the industry hardly ever discusses. That's the conservation option: Instead of trying to replace supply, we should simply reduce demand.
Conservation is America's secret weapon, if only we would use it. It worked in the '70s, and it can work again.
Americans are the biggest energy wasters on earth. Western Europeans use half the energy we do to enjoy basically the same lifestyle. Here, we can make great gains in frugality and efficiency to do more with much less power. That will reduce the demand for electricity from coal.
If we conserve petroleum supplies, industry can continue to use oil for plastics and chemicals for decades to come, instead of having to switch to coal, which will certainly have its own problems.
Clean coal is a risky gamble that distracts America from proven solutions for energy security. We should force Washington to divert the $9 billion in coal subsidies from the 2005 Energy Bill over to crash programs for efficiency and clean energy. Meanwhile, all of us who flip light switches should cut our energy use so that we can prove the coal industry wrong. If we start now to power down our lifestyles, we won't need more coal in the future; we'll need less.
Want to know more about "clean coal" and coal mining in West Virginia? Visit Coal River Mountain Watch: www.coalfieldsustainability.org.