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Coal in for a Bumpy Ride and a Final Decline

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More coal miners have lost their lives
from cave-ins, explosions and lung disease
since 1900 than all the Americans who died
in World War II.

- Ralph Nader

There is a moment in the progress of any high altitude flight when the engines let off and the craft pitches down slightly; that is the beginning of the long descent for landing. In the past three weeks, our nation crossed a line in how we think about coal, and it now seems coal's long flight of dominating how we produce electricity has embarked on a final decline.

A pivotal lightning strike hit the industry on April 5, in the probably avoidable explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Lit up in the glare of the news cycle was Don Blankenship of Massey Energy whose union busting and campaign of appealing safety violations has led, probably, to the explosion in his mine.

That's the view loudly proclaimed by AFL-CIO president and former president of United Mine Workers Richard Trumka, who can cogently claim the disaster was propelled by the lack of union vigilance in the mine in question.

Preceded by 53 safety violations in March and over 450 the previous year, the accident launched two federal investigations sought by West Virginia Senators Rockefeller and Byrd -- who are otherwise quite protective of the industry -- and a campaign of inspecting all mines in West Virginia was ordered by Governor Joe Manchin.

A Wall Street law firm has joined the pushback posse, seeking to know if Massey violated SEC regulations by failing to disclose risk properly to investors. Another investor group dubbed CtW is calling for the ouster of Blankenship. It's been joined by New York State's Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, who has direct control of over 300,000 shares of Massey stock through that state's common retirement fund.

There is nothing like a mass casualty incident to focus our politics, and the small chance of coal state pols voting for clean energy jobs and a climate bill is inching higher, especially as the national focus on coal's danger may lead eyeballs to stumble upon a recent study by Downstream Strategies showing what Appalachians know in their guts that the region's coal reserves are in decline and the region needs diverse economic development immediately.

Severe local turbulence can lead to loss of altitude, but more distant control can call for descent, too, in the form of federal regulation.

Just days before the Montcoal catastrophe, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules to curb the practice of mountain top removal mining that is poisoning waterways and flattening Appalachia. It was denounced by Friends of Coal as a big job-killer, their usual line, as the industry hates all job losses that they do not effectuate from their own corporate offices. Also, later this month the EPA is scheduled to release new regulations for the handling of coal ash waste, the long awaited comeuppance for the spill of biblical proportions that cloaked eastern Tennessee at Christmas of 2008. The regulations could impose serious costs on the industry.

As forces of scrutiny and regulation converge on the coal industry to reduce some of its hazards, they will push the price of the black rock appropriately upward. And as celebrated environmentalist Lester Brown has said, the free market is fine so long as prices tell the truth about costs.

We need coal to be priced according to it costs, and politics is moving in that direction, particularly as we look west. Citing the city's home rule authority as their clout, Chicago's City Council has joyfully presented an ordinance to regulate the emissions of two coal plants inside the city limits, and if that fails, to call for the plants' retirement. Chicagoans suffer twice the asthma-related hospitalizations than the national average.

Here in Boulder we too have home rule authority and are feeling a strong push to delay the signing of a new franchise agreement with Xcel Energy in favor of a new business arrangement crafted for decarbonization. This week all nine members of the City Council opined in a study session that times are changing and so must our energy production. Focusing on how coal is becoming less reliable, Councilwoman Susie Ageton put it forcefully: "We've got to make the shift - we've got to do it."

Maybe she knows that Colorado's coal fields are faltering; the state hit peak production six years ago and "force majeure" has shut down mines four times since 2007. As for the motherlode of coal up in Wyoming, the most recent US Geological Survey assessment of coal in the Gillette Field of the Powder River Basin (which provides about 40 percent of our nation's coal) found that only 6 percent was economically accessible. And The Bureau of Land Management has stated that major mines in the PRB have less than a ten year life span. Future mine expansions will face compelling geologic and other challenges. (For more on coal supply constraints go here.)

So no one, especially the coal industry, should be surprised that Governor Ritter will sign legislation calling on Xcel Energy to reduce by 80 percent the nasty pollutants of key coal plants along the Front Range, with overt instruction to consider natural gas and low emitting sources as replacement for coal.

We're seeing the decline of coal. There may be air pockets to bump the industry back up and sharply down in its trajectory, but the fact is the 150 year flight is just plain running out of gas. And with Colorado in the forefront, many American communities are preparing for a smooth landing.

A version of this column appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera