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'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

by JP Bill / October 20, 2012 5:39 AM PDT
'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It's easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal - cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies - some kind of political or cultural "war" than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

War, after all, demands victims. And in this case, it seems, victims demand a war.

But in war, casualties are often inflated. The numbers are eye-catching, but details are lost. Too often, the narrative overlooks the fact that when layoffs occur, many workers transfer to other locations. One mine closes, another absorbs.

In reality, U.S. Department of Labor figures show the number of coal jobs nationwide has grown steadily since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and Virginia, and ups and down in Kentucky.

Environmental standards are growing tougher as Americans outside coal country demand clean air and water. Old, inefficient, coal-fired power plants are going offline or converting to natural gas, cutting into a traditional customer base. And that gas poses fierce, sustainable competition, thanks to advanced drilling technologies that make vast reserves more accessible than ever.

Even if the reviled regulations fell away, many experts say, coal's peak has passed.

In one of his last major speeches in 2009, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd warned that change was upon coal country. He chastised the industry for "scapegoating and stoking fear," calling it counterproductive.

"To be part of any solution," he said, "one must first acknowledge the problem."

The greatest threats to coal, Byrd warned, come not from regulations "but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting reserves and the declining demand."
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