Reshaping the U.S. Coal Industry

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.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 177-180

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