You can't be friends with coal. You can't be a friend of coal. You can't be coal's enemy or out to destroy coal or declare a war on coal. Coal is just a black rock. To be more specific, it's a “black or dark brown mineral substance consisting of carbonized vegetable matter.” It cannot be your friend or your enemy.
I am writing this in response to the many articles, editorials, ads, billboards, radio spots and just run of the mill conversations that I have seen and heard concerning coal since I moved back to the Ohio Valley last summer. I am tired of the all or nothing, with us or against us attitude that so many seem to have around this issue. People claim to be “friends of coal” and berate imagined scary liberals in Washington who are out to “destroy coal.”
This is all utter non-sense. If anyone is out to “destroy COAL” it's the people at the power plants who burn it up every day to provide most of us in the Ohio Valley with electricity. That's literally “destroying coal.” Or burning it up, if you prefer. Now, I know that's not what most people mean when they say someone's out to “destroy coal,” but it should serve to show how silly this “friends” and “enemies” language really is.
What people want to say by claiming to be a “friend of coal” is that they support the coal industry. But this seemingly benign phrase is just a clever way to mask the fact that the “coal industry” is actually made up of a diverse array of people and interests. Coal miners and coal owners, for example, do not always have the exact same interests. Massey Energy is denying the science behind government reports that say it's Upper Big Branch mine was unsafe prior to the tragedy that killed 29 coal miners. Would you be a friend to coal miners if you support Massey's claims? Are you a friend to coal miners if you support reductions in spending on mine safety enforcement?
And what's good for the mines is not always good for consumers. Miners, owners, consumers. These are three separate groups with differing interests. You can be a coal miner's friend, you can be a coal operator's friend, you can be a coal user's friend. You can't be friends with coal.
And yes, the issue of coal is further complicated by the sometimes devastating impact the coal industry has on the environment. Mountaintop removal coal mining is just the worst offender. It is particularly despicable because it also means fewer mining jobs than would be generated through conventional mining. Supporting mountaintop removal might make you a friend of some shareholders on Wall Street, but it does not make you a friend of West Virginia coal miners or of West Virginia's natural beauty.
We also know that coal pollutes the air right here and now. Regions that get most of their electricity from coal show higher rates of cancer and many other diseases. Is coal the sole cause? Almost definitely not. But it most like is a contributing factor. The potential health risks must be considered in any adult, rational conversation about the use of coal.
Finally, there is scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is doing substantial, long-lasting damage to our environment in the form of massive, man-made climate change. It is time to stop burying our heads in the sand and pretending this isn't the case because we wish it weren't true. My own dad is a coal miner. I don't want him to be out of a job. I don't want to shut down all the mines. But I do want my children and grandchildren to someday enjoy a world that is in better, not worse shape than we found it in. I would guess most other West Virginians feel the same way.
So there it is. Coal is a complex issue. We should be discussing ways that we can defend the livelihoods of coal miners while protecting their safety. We should be discussing ways that companies can make a profit while being responsible protectors of our current and future environment. We should take care of those who have given us so much through their service in the mines while working toward a future that is NOT dependent on coal. We can take all of these things into account and in fact we MUST take all of these things into account if we are to have a healthy, beautiful and prosperous West Virginia in the 21st century.
*Author's Note: This was written with a regional audience in mind. To my national, mostly liberal friends on DailyKos, I would simply add this.
It is not helpful to set yourself up as being "anti-coal" or out to shut down the whole coal industry all at once. This just gives credence to the silly "all or nothing" thinking of the "friends of coal" promoters. Even if you think we SHOULD eliminate all coal mining and burning in this country, you should also, as a rational, humane adult, think about the lives of those who depend on this industry currently. There are whole towns in the southern West Virginia coal fields where the coal mine is the sole major employer. Any plan to move away from coal must be gradual and MUST take into account how we will help ordinary people through the transition.