SURELY NO NATION ON EARTH has as many coal miners or coal mines as China. In 1996, 5 million Chinese mined coal, virtually all of them underground. At the same time in the United States, about 90,000 miners were digging about the same amount of coal. The reason for the disparity, of course, is that Chinese mines rely much more on cheap labor than on costly machines. In addition to its many large mines, China has tens of thousands of tiny mines that each employ just a handful of miners.* The small mines are vastly more deadly than the big mines, which are themselves quite dangerous. In 1991, a particularly bad year, 10,000 Chinese coal miners died in accidents. By comparison, the number of Americans killed in coal mining in 1992, a bad year for the U.S. industry, was fifty-one.
*In 1998, China had about 75,000 mines employing an average of thirteen miners each. These small mines have a death rate seven times higher than the large ones.
… As they are in the United States and other coal-producing nations, the small inefficient mines are shutting down in favor of larger ones. In China, though, the scale of the disruption is mind-boggling: Beijing claims to have closed down 30,000 small mines just since 1998. Although the true number is surely less, there are undeniably painful reforms underway that have already thrown perhaps a million Chinese coal miners out of work.* These sweeping changes reflect the fundamental shift in Beijing’s economic philosophy over the years: In a move more reminiscent of J. P. Morgan than Mao Zedong, the Communist government is now openly urging coal companies to merge into larger and larger enterprises, and to form “cartels” to limit overproduction and improve profitability.
*According to widespread reports, many communities have defied Beijing and quietly reopened their small mines; as a result, several officially “closed” mines have suffered deadly mining accidents in recent years. However, reports that miners are being laid off in huge numbers, including at large state-run mines, are more credible. Between 1992 and 1995, reportedly 883,000 coal miners (more than ten times the total U.S. coal mining workforce) were laid off, and there are plans to lay off nearly 800,000 more.
Daily Archives: 12 December 2006
THERE MAY BE NO POLLUTANT in all of history that people have worked harder to defeat than sulfur dioxide. In the United States alone the battle against it has absorbed years of effort and billions of dollars. Although it is nowhere near won, it has already utterly transformed the coal industry. It has also created deep political fissures between states and regions, as local fortunes rise and fall and as states struggle to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to fight this invisible foe and to stop 11 killing their downwind neighbors.
Coal provides just over half the electricity for the United States, with huge and politically important regional variations. Many states, especially in the coal-producing regions, get virtually all their electricity from coal; others, especially on the West Coast and in New England, burn next to none. They rely instead on the three power sources that make up almost all the other half of the nation’s electricity—hydroelectric dams, nuclear power, and natural gas—though sometimes they also import coal-fired electricity from other states. However, the number of people a state’s coal plants actually sicken or kill (and the amount of acid rain and lost visibility they cause) depends not just on how much coal they burn bur on the kind of coal they use and how they burn it.
People who run coal-fired power plants can cut their SO2 emissions in two ways: They can scrub, or they can switch…. It’s often cheaper and a lot easier, though, just to switch to a kind of coal containing less sulfur. This option has caused some painful changes to the traditional U.S. coal industry by wrenching much of it away from the high-sulfur coal fields of the East and moving it to the low-sulfur coal fields of the West. Western coal has always been easier to dig because it lies in thick seams near the surface; but it is younger and generally packs less of an energy punch than the older eastern coals. In 1970, before environmental laws made sulfur content so important, only a tiny, share of U.S. coal came from west of the Mississippi. Today, more than half of it does, and the growing western low-sulfur coal fields are continuing to drain business away from the suffering high-sulfur eastern fields. Wyoming, with its vast surface mines, is now the nation’s top coal-producing state. One result of the shift is that the coal industry can no longer view the environmental movement solely as a threat; the western coal fields, at least, owe much of their growth to environmental laws, and could benefit even more from stricter SO2 limits.
The shift to the western United States has transformed this ancient industry in other ways, too. Even though coal fueled the rise of the machine in virtually every sector of the economy, the extraction of coal (as opposed to mine drainage or coal transportation) long depended far more on manual labor than on machines. Today, though, nearly two-thirds of American coal comes from surface mines, where it has been scooped up by some of the world’s most gargantuan machines. This mechanized mass production has helped make the direct cost of coal incredibly cheap by any measure.
The mechanization of mining has also devastated the work force. Because only the largest mines can afford to mechanize, the smaller mines that characterized the soft-coal industry for so much of the twentieth century have finally been driven out. More than three-quarters of the coal mines operating in the United States in 1976 have closed, and the current work force of 72,000 coal miners is less than a third of what it was a quarter century ago. The once mighty UMW now represents a mere 20,000 miners, who produce less than a fifth of American coal.
Offprints are unbound printed pages of an article, which a scholarly journal provides to the article’s author so that he may share them with colleagues. The protocol is — or rather, was — that when a researcher wanted to read an article that happened to appear in a journal he didn’t subscribe to, he would send a postcard to the author, care of his institutional address, asking for an offprint. And the author, as a matter of scholarly courtesy, would mail it to him free. My father is a scientist, and when I was little and collected stamps, most of them came from the postcards sent to him and the other scientists at his institution, requesting offprints. In those days, the 1970s and 1980s, the requests by and large came from developing countries, where the research institutions had less money for their libraries. The postcards came from all over the world, in other words, from countries I’d never heard of and imagined I would never see, and it gave me a thrill to see them, emblems of the glamour and global reach of the life of the mind.
He’s also offering to send you an offprint if you send him a postcard.