Maybe It's Time We Did Declare War On Coal

A look around at the reactions to today's administration announcement of new regulations to reduce carbon emissions shows about what you'd expect. Environmentalists are pleased, but think it doesn't go far enough. Conservatives are outraged. Across coal country, you can expect to hear cries that that this is just the latest salvo in Obama's "war on coal." The administration will respond that it isn't waging war on coal, because under these regulations states will have the flexibility to achieve emissions reductions in a variety of ways.

But you know what? Maybe it's time we did wage war on coal. The stuff is a menace.

OK, I'm joking—kind of. What I mean, though, is that it might be clarifying if we decided that we're going to mobilize our resources and ingenuity to rid ourselves of this scourge upon the earth--to actually say not just that we're going to enhance other forms of energy, but that our goal is to get to the point, no matter how long it takes, where our use of coal drops to zero.

I grant you, no politician is going to come out and declare war on coal, even if most of the places where that would cause a problem are out of reach for Democrats anyway. But it might be nice to hear some of them talk frankly about coal, and not by saying we're going to move to "clean coal," which you may have noticed we haven't heard all that much about lately (and it was one of Barack Obama's favorite phrases). If "clean coal" could be an actual thing, then states could meet these new emission standards while still burning all the coal they want. But of course, they can't.

One argument against waging war on coal—that it will cost too many jobs—isn't really persuasive, because there just aren't that many coal miners anymore. The National Mining Association has data on the number of miners going back to 1923, when there were over 700,000 Americans doing this work (the data are once a decade until the 1980s, after which they have figures for every year):

Today, there are fewer than 90,000 Americans mining coal; depending on how you count, there are more people working in the solar power industry. That figure doesn't include people who work for coal companies but aren't involved in mining (clerks, accountants, etc.), and of course it doesn't include people whose livings are dependent on the coal industry, like those who own businesses in mining towns. But the point is that in terms of manpower, coal has become a tiny industry. In the 1920s, one out of every 150 Americans was a coal miner; today it's one out of every 3,600 Americans.

And here's something I'm wondering. If the people of West Virginia or Kentucky could wind back the clock a few hundred years and imagine that there were no coal in their states, would they do it? Would they trade away those dirty, dangerous, difficult jobs for other kinds of opportunity? Would they prefer not to pay the ghastly price in the pollution of their air and water, or of mountaintop removal, in which they allowed coal companies to turn beautiful rolling hillsides into horrifying lunar landscapes? Today the idea that coal mining might disappear fills them with an understandable fear, but has coal been kind to them? Or has it been the cruelest of masters, taking far more from them than it ever gave?

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