Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Price of Coal

After every serious coal mining accident, commentators like to remind us that while coal may be cheaper than other forms of energy in terms of dollars, it exacts a high human price. The fate of the miners wasn't even being reported correctly when an op-ed in that vein appeared in the New York Times. To the extent the authors' criticisms are accurate, it's important to remember that we all share responsibility for the steady rise in coal consumption.

As the article reminds us, coal is our most plentiful domestic energy resource, and part of its value proposition derives directly from the higher cost of cleaner alternatives. I'm sure I seem like a broken record on this topic, but the combination of short-sighted bans on offshore gas drilling, restrictions on vast tracts of federal land, and inadequate infrastructure investment is rendering our most attractive fuel uncompetitive against coal.

At the same time, electricity consumption has been growing at 2%/year for the last decade, and with gas around $10 per million BTUs, coal will win the battle for new generating capacity. As optimistic as I am about alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass, for the next decade they cannot grow fast enough to displace fossil fuels. The choice for new base-load electricity generation is between coal and gas--and just possibly nuclear.

Nor can we ignore the economic contribution coal makes in the areas in which it is found, particularly in the eastern US. However unappealing mining jobs may seem to those of us in the post-industrial portions of America, they remain attractive in communities that often have few other alternatives, a point made frequently during interviews in the last 24 hours.

Safety is a crucial concern in coal mining, and the safety record of the Sago mine is hardly exemplary. But although the national trend in mining deaths has been steadily downward, working underground is inherently risky. In the case of some of these old mines, total safety can only be achieved by shutting them down, because their economics are marginal even at today's higher coal prices.

Unfortunately, the bill for our energy "free lunch" gets paid periodically in towns like Sago, WV. Americans have chosen a highly energy-intensive lifestyle, while erecting obstacles in the way of the safest and cleanest energy resources we possess. It may be crass to point this out, but these miners died in part so that others can enjoy beaches with views unsullied by drilling platforms or wind turbines, and wilderness areas without derricks and pipelines. If that makes you uncomfortable--and it should--then we have ample means of correcting the situation by changing how we use energy and by demanding sensible and consistent energy and environmental policies.

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