By Luke Popovich
Despite appearances, I wasn’t around 100 years ago when Coal Age first broke into print. Still it’s amazing to think that any publication these days can hang around and even prosper that long by covering a single industry.
For one thing, how many publications have had an industry to cover for 100 years? And even if they did, how many publications have stayed in print—surviving 100 years of business cycles and competitors—to cover it? The only magazine I read that is older than Coal Age is reputedly the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language—The Spectator. But this proud London publication covers an even older, more enduring topic—political vice and cultural vanity. That’s not fair competition.
So this anniversary pays tribute to both an industry as well as the publication that has chronicled its ups and downs. Ups and downs…they’ve seen a few. Over the decades, both coal and Coal Age have been knocked down but never out. “Creative destruction,” said by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter to be the defining characteristic of capitalism, has not destroyed the demand for coal or the need for Coal Age to cover it.
In today’s global economy, a “here-today, gone-tomorrow” product cycle has made Schumpeter’s dictum painfully obvious. Ask Lehman Brothers’ shareholders if any business is too big to fail. That’s why the enduring value of coal and the coal industry’s oldest trade magazine is especially remarkable today, when businesses seem to emerge out of nowhere and disappear just as fast. Will social media hang around for 100 years? Right.
It must be a surprise to many today that coal has survived and yet its day is far from done. Although coal faces stiff domestic competition and fierce opposition from green fanatics, it’s the darling of foreign consumers. Coal has been the fastest growing energy source in the past decade.
Ask 600 million electricity consumers in India if they want fewer coal-fired power plants. Ask China’s energy ministry for the date when it plans to replace coal with LNG. Question high-cost EU manufacturers, struggling in a global economy, on how their carbon caps are working out. Offshore demand for coal will continue to grow whenever offshore economies resume growth. Last month an economic think tank estimated that U.S. coal exports could add between $2 and $6 billion annually to our economy.
Coal could add even more if Washington would stop fighting coal utilization and start fighting coal regulation. There are signs that some in Congress get it. The House of Representatives passed a bill this summer that would lift the regulatory burden from coal and a bi-partisan group of senators have introduced similar legislation in their side of the Capitol. We’re also seeing the federal courts swing into action, backing the NMA’s arguments in multiple decisions this summer that flatly declared the EPA’s coal permit policy unlawful.
But here too, coal has seen this all before—it’s a war veteran, not a battlefield casualty. In 1973, Carl Bagge, the president of the NMA’s predecessor organization, reminded his members “the coal industry has had to fight for its life” from “a national environmental orgy” and a government determined to “war against the coal industry.” Sound familiar?
If coal’s challenges haven’t changed all that much, its performance certainly has. Coal Age has presided over 100 years’ worth of improvements in mine safety, emissions reductions, and reclamation and productivity. Better technology, better training and better workers have literally transformed an industry from a low wage, labor-intensive provider of pollution-heavy energy to a high-wage, highly automated producer of lower-emission power.
And over this single generation of progress, how many more generations of people here and the world over have been lifted from the darkness of rural poverty with electricity made possible by coal? Hundreds of millions around the world are still waiting to see the light. In the century to come, coal can give them a brighter future too.
Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.