By Don L. Blankenship - 03/10/10 11:37 PM EST
The loudest of those three voices belongs to environmental activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who regularly leads anti-coal protests. “A dirty, deadly fuel that is neither cheap nor clean,” Kennedy once said of coal. His political agenda is just as simplistic as his rhetoric: Stop coal. End surface mining. Halt coal-fired power plants — all in the name of global warming.
Coal’s positive impact on the U.S. economy is greatly underestimated. Coal accounts for 75 percent of railroad shipments and 25 percent of barge and lake carrier traffic in the United States. In West Virginia, the coal industry supports 63,000 jobs and produces $25.5 billion for the state’s economy, according to a recent study by the West Virginia Coal Association.
Our coal economy depends on surface mining, which produces roughly 40 percent of the coal and 14,000 jobs in Appalachia. It is also the safest way to mine coal.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has slowed the approval process and recently pulled 23 surface mining permits in West Virginia for more scrutiny. With the stroke of a pen, the EPA has put at least 1,300 coal-related jobs in limbo during a national recession and threatens mines capable of producing 19 millions tons of coal a year — or more than 10 percent of the coal mined in West Virginia.
The loss or delay of that production not only costs companies and their investors, but harms the local governments that need the tax dollars these coal mines produce. Regulatory shenanigans are just part of the problem. Nuisance lawsuits by environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, which filed 983 lawsuits against the federal government from 2000 to 2009, tie up the legal system and bombard private industry with legal complaints.
If successful, the political crusade against coal will devastate Appalachia’s economy. The first casualties will be thousands upon thousands of good-paying jobs with good benefits. Jobs might not matter on the beaches of Hyannis Port, Mass., but they do in the hollows of West Virginia. Revenue from coal, which funds teacher pensions, cannot be replicated by wind and solar anywhere in Appalachia. Even in areas of the country where the sun shines yearlong and wind is plentiful, alternative energy projects are proving temperamental.
So far, green jobs look more like green elephants. The Energy Department was awarded $5 billion in stimulus money for weatherization projects but has spent just $522 million, a trickle that won’t jumpstart the economy. One study found that the Obama administration has awarded $2.3 billion in tax credits for the clean energy sector to create 17,000 jobs — or $135,295 per job. Apparently, a green job is when the government takes your “green” and uses it to give someone else a job.
Meanwhile, liberal Democrats like Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Sherrod Brown of Ohio expressed shock and awe after reading a study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop that reported 79 percent of the $2 billion in clean energy grants awarded since Sept. 1, 2009, went to foreign wind companies. A Texas wind farm project awarded stimulus dollars will create 3,000 jobs — in China, where the turbines are being built.
No matter how much you turn on the spigot, renewables have so far turned into folly, not the future. Even Mr. Kennedy’s pet renewable project, BrightSource Energy, a solar thermal power complex in the Mojave Desert, could eventually serve as a poster child for dubious green energy projects, if some environmentalists have their way. Kennedy has joined with new friends in Big Oil in a solar project that was recently awarded a conditional $1.4 billion loan guarantee by the Department of Energy, courtesy of the 2009 stimulus plan. The $1.4 billion will create 1,000 temporary jobs — but just 86 permanent positions.
It is ironic that Mr. Kennedy now faces a problem he has created for numerous coal projects around the country. Some local environmentalists have deemed the plant not green enough, or a possible “solar sacrifice zone.” The project has already been scaled back because these groups insisted that the BrightSource project would have a negative impact on the desert tortoise, an endangered species.
Certainly, Mr. Kennedy may learn a thing or two about the sweat and tears it takes to produce energy in this country.
Blankenship is chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Co.