Coal Mining: Santa Claus, Stockings, & Bad Behavior genre: Econ-Recon & Six Degrees of Speculation

Lump Of Coal

I've got coal on the brain...and the news just keeps what remains of my neurons popping. As a kid, I remember thinking about my behavior and whether it had been sufficient to prevent me from receiving a chunk of coal in my Christmas stocking. Of course I soon realized that parents had simply co-opted the holiday as a means to insure that children toe the line.

Today, as an adult in America, coal has become a symbol for something far different. In many ways, it represents the inability of the United States to address our growing dependence upon foreign oil and all that has become associated with that dilemma.

By and large, coal is an outdated fuel source...but one that remains a prevalent and precious reserve in this country. Not that many years back, it appeared that coal might literally become a fossil that was shelved in favor of other energy sources...but then the world suddenly realized that oil reserves would not last forever, nuclear power wasn't as safe as we had hoped, and those with the lions share of crude weren't on the best of terms with the United States.

At that point, coal returned as king...and along with its resurgence came the concerns about its lack of a polluting well as environmental concerns resulting from the actual extraction process. Lastly, its return to prominence brought with it concerns about miner safety.

The Sago and Crandall Canyon mining disasters brought renewed attention to the travails that accompany a dependence upon coal. In the absence of a comprehensive energy intended to solve our reliance on external sources...there will continue to be controversy surrounding the coal industry and our need to exploit the reserves that exist.

An article in The New York Times highlights the controversies that can be expected to result from our efforts to balance the need for fuel alongside of our desire to preserve the many pristine locales from which coal must be extracted...not to mention the need to limit the amount of pollutants we emit into an already taxed atmosphere. The obstacles are many.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 — The Bush administration is set to issue a regulation on Friday that would enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.

It has been used in Appalachian coal country for 20 years under a cloud of legal and regulatory confusion.

The new rule would allow the practice to continue and expand, providing only that mine operators minimize the debris and cause the least environmental harm, although those terms are not clearly defined and to some extent merely restate existing law.

The regulation is the culmination of six and a half years of work by the administration to make it easier for mining companies to dig more coal to meet growing energy demands and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association, Luke Popovich, said that unless mine owners were allowed to dump mine waste in streams and valleys it would be impossible to operate in mountainous regions like West Virginia that hold some of the richest low-sulfur coal seams.

The rule, which would apply to waste from both types of mines, is known as the stream buffer zone rule. First adopted in 1983, it forbids virtually all mining within 100 feet of a river or stream.

The Interior Department drafted the proposal to try to clear up a 10-year legal and regulatory dispute over how the 1983 rule should be applied. The change is to be published on Friday in The Federal Register, officials said.

The Clinton administration began moving in 1998 to tighten enforcement of the stream rule, but the clock ran out before it could enact new regulations. The Bush administration has been much friendlier to mining interests, which have been reliable contributors to the Republican Party, and has worked on the new rule change since 2001.

Interior Department officials said they could not comment on the rule because it had not been published. But a senior official of the Office of Surface Mining said the stream buffer rule was never intended to prohibit all mining in and around streams, but rather just to minimize the effects of such work.

He said the regulation would explicitly state that the buffer zone rule does not apply for hundreds of miles of streams and valleys and that he hoped, but did not expect, that the rule would end the fight over mine waste.

Mr. Lovett of the Appalachian Center said the rule would only stoke a new battle.

“They are not strengthening the buffer zone rule," he said. “They are just destroying it. By sleight of hand, they are removing one of the few protections streams now have from the most egregious mining activities."

Like it or not, coal will continue to be an important source of energy in the United States until such time as efforts are made to establish a comprehensive energy plan designed to foster alternative sources, minimize reliance on foreign oil, and reduce the negative impacts from coal extraction and pollution. It won't be easy and it wont be cheap.

Additionally, to achieve this goal will require major changes...changes that most Americans haven't exhibited much of an inclination to make...changes that would require large and long established industries to adapt. Unfortunately, many of these same industries have strong political ties and have been major campaign contributors. They also employ influential lobbyists who insure that their interests are heard and that they receive favorable legislative treatment. Separating politicians from their political lifeline wont be easily achieved.

Unfortunately, the situation with regards to coal reminds me of the expression, "Everything old is new again". While its true that my parents are unable to use Christmas to negotiate my good behavior...and while I no longer have to worry about Santa Claus placing a chunk of coal in my stocking...I'm afraid that America's failed energy policy means that we're all going to see a lot more coal stuffed in our proverbial stockings.

It just goes to show that yesterdays lessons rarely lose their relevance. We American's need to change our behavior...or its coal today, coal tomorrow, and coal on Christmas.


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