By Luke Popovich
Normally, if you had the most of something that the rest of the world wanted very badly, you’d feel pretty good about yourself. But these aren’t normal times—not, at least, when it comes to energy.
The U.S. has 27% of the world’s coal, the most of any country. For all practical purposes—and what other purpose is there for coal?—America’s coal supply is limitless. The U.S. is to coal what France is to cheese. We have more than enough to serve our own domestic needs and still provide coal to the rest of the world. As luck would have it, the rest of the world wants it. Coal is the fastest growing global energy source. We know some of the biggest, fastest growing countries rely heavily on coal for their main source of electricity generation and as an essential ingredient in steelmaking. China and India are emptying out their countryside and building new cities, so they need coal for both. Less well known is that developed countries—from Japan to Germany—are also using more coal today than they did a decade ago.
So for U.S. coal, it’s opening day at the ball park and we’re selling hotdogs.
But some out there think hotdogs are bad for us. They not only don’t want us eating them; they don’t want hotdogs sold outside the park. Environmental activists, concerned that the climate may change, oppose not only domestic use of our largest source of energy, they oppose the rest of the world using it. These would include the energy poor: the unlucky 1.3 billion people in the developing world who have no access to electricity, let alone the trappings of civilization it brings. They include another 2.6 billion humans forced to cook with wood, tree leaves, crop and animal waste. To these—the people who live in the dark—the air-conditioned activist counsels patience: “Solar panels and wind turbines are coming to your village any decade now.” To the families in Spain or England struggling to stretch paychecks or welfare checks, the message from activists is equally uplifting: “Higher heating and cooling bills are actually good for you.”
These messages are of course sent from offices tricked out with 24-7 heating, cooling, fridges, mineral water, elevators and lighting. Greens preach temperance from the proverbial bar stool.
Their fear is that affluence is…spreading. They worry that poor people may one day get affordable electricity from America’s coal and actually replace their wood-burning stoves, poor sanitation or expensive natural gas. So the Sierra Club and other earnest greens are inveighing against coal coast-to-coast, from enactment of a carbon tax in Washington, D.C., to a ban on coal terminals in Washington state.
Their latest protest ploy has been to threaten law suits to block trains hauling coal from the PRB to West Coast ports. In press conferences and local TV news broadcasts, we learn that coal spills from railcars may poison the water throughout Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Coal has been in transit throughout the Gorge for decades, of course, longer than the Clean Water Act has been around to provide clean water standards. In all that time, no health effects from coal have surfaced. A spokesperson for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad dismissed the greens’ claim as “grandstanding.” A noted toxicologist, Dr. Roger McClellan, formerly with the National Academy of Sciences, called activists “irresponsible to release exaggerated claims and mislead the public and regulators about the impact of moving coal.”
But to these folks, it’s “irresponsible” to let facts spoil the Arcadian narrative and its appeal to rich funders. Science deniers come in many flavors, including those who ignore the world’s poor dwelling in the dark.
Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.