I can't turn on the television without coal industry advocacy groups scaring me about a war on coal. If the wrong party or candidate attains office, mines shut down, steel furnaces go cold, barges and tugs are moored, trains rust in the switch yard and the lights go out. America stumbles and lurches into the post-post industrial age. Hmmmm. Really?
America's energy sources have been shifting in source and volume since the dawn of the industrial age. In recent years our electric generating capacity has been less reliant on coal. Why is that? Federal regulations are increasingly blamed, but one look at energy price trends tells a different story. This year for the first time ever the cost of natural gas energy dipped below that of the equivalent in coal energy.
On the other hand, coal, especially out east, is getting harder to mine as most of the thick seams are gone. Since gas is easier to produce and transport, while being cheaper and cleaner than coal, and requires fewer people to exploit at every step of production and use, well, American consumption of coal will decline regardless of the presence or absence of federal pollution standards. Fact is, some coal fired plants around the country have been idled because they could not compete with gas-fired generation, not because of pollution standards.
The deregulated electricity market allows suppliers to choose the cheapest generation service to send to you and me. Will some jobs be lost? Yes. Will these be replaced by other jobs in the energy sector? Not all, but many. Historically, most coal mining jobs in this country were lost due to mechanization and change of mining practices like the more current mountain-top removal methods. One bright spot for coal is that export to overseas customers is strong, despite lagging domestic consumption. Change is always difficult, especially so when a shift as big and as fundamental as this comes along. Simply put, market forces are a much bigger stick than the puny federal regulations decried so in paid political ads of late.
I wonder if the titans of Nantucket peddled propaganda when their once-vast whaling fleet lay still in the harbor? Alas, my brief and admittedly half-hearted search for "the war on whale oil" yielded no results. I guess titans were made of stiffer stuff back then.
Michael J. Marks