06/10/2010 09:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Securing Our Clean Energy Future

"The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy."
President Obama - State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010

Very true; but the President's statement raises a question: are we, as a nation, ready and willing to do what it takes to move into the position of leadership on this issue? If the answer is "yes," then we must move quickly.

Last month, I attended the highly anticipated debate between Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the largest mountaintop removal company in the United States. The debate was entitled "Forum on the Future of Energy," and it turned out to be a straight-up victory for Kennedy and sustainable energy. But outcome aside, just the fact that the debate happened at all, was a victory. It's a very rare occurrence, when a public dialogue between an environmentalist and a coal executive takes place.

The timing was fortuitous, as right now there's a battle taking place over the sources of America's energy. At this pivotal time in global environmental history, it's critical that we restructure the capturing and use of energy.

In the State of the Union address, the President spoke of the benefits in environmental and climatic health, energy independence and jobs that we will gain by embracing clean energy solutions. The President also called for a comprehensive climate and energy bill. It's clear that he supports the cap-and-trade policy of limiting emissions and opposes any "Energy Only" bill that narrowly addresses the identification and management of resources, but leaves out stemming climate change. It's also very encouraging that he has some key Republican support for the comprehensive approach from Senator Lindsay Graham.

However, among proposed solutions, the President included so-called "clean coal," which left many skeptical of the Administration's commitment to developing clean and sustainable energy. The President has subsequently said that coal will be with us for a while as we transition over to a green energy economy.

While it's true that right now coal supplies just over 50 percent of America's electricity, this polluting fossil fuel doesn't serve our needs in the long term. And despite the industry's claims, hidden health and environmental costs mean that it isn't cheap, and it certainly isn't clean.

Sadly, we can't just turn the switch and stop using it today. But as we transition from dirty energy sources to clean energy industries and jobs, we can better manage the devastating effects of coal by halting mountaintop removal mining operations. That is something that CAN happen today!

The environmental impacts of this method of mining and its poisonous byproducts make coal mined via mountaintop removal the dirtiest coal of all. Among the costs to Appalachia - where mountaintop removal is most commonly practiced - are the losses of roughly 500 mountains and two thousand miles of streams, all of this, irreplaceable.

As Robert Kennedy remarked during the debate "The closer you live to a coal mine, the sicker you are". We must take into consideration the financial impacts of diseases like chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases, high rates of cancer and asthma (among a list of other serious illnesses) that are rampant amongst the people who live near mountaintop removal sites. These costs warrant roughly $40 billion in healthcare expenditures.

The emotional and spiritual costs to all of us, but in particular to those who live in those surrounding communities when mountains are blasted apart and the debris dumped like garbage into surrounding waterways, cannot be counted in dollars. The destruction of the natural beauty, the ecosystems, and the majesty of mountains affect us in ways we're not even aware of. Every time a mountain is beheaded, we chop off a little part of our souls.

The President's point about the economic viability of clean energy bears directly on mountaintop removal. The transition from deep mining to mountaintop removal eliminated approximately 90% of the coal industry's work force in the past half-century. It's going to take innovation in clean technology to make up these jobs in the energy sector now. In addition, the widespread destruction caused by mountaintop removal closes off opportunities for any other kind of economic growth. Blowing apart ancient mountains makes dollars from tourism and recreation-based businesses dry up, and it makes it even more difficult for these regions of the country to capitalize on the opportunities that the expanding market for wind power offers.

Mountaintop removal is responsible for only about five percent of the coal used in U.S. for electricity production, but its environmental, physical, economic and personal impacts are out of proportion to its meager benefits. Mountaintop removal coal operations enrich only a handful of elites while impoverishing everyone else in their proximity.

It will take some time for us to transition from this dirty fossil fuel to cleaner and sustainable forms of energy that are needed to maintain our lifestyles and economic progress. However, it is imperative that we discontinue the unbelievably destructive and most devastating form of coal mining - mountaintop removal. For the sake of the physical, financial, and spiritual health of the people who live near those mountains, for the sake of the waterways, and for the sake of how the world views and tests the commitment of the United States.

Along with the elimination of this type of coal mining, it's imperative that we ensure a positive outcome for our country on all levels - economically, environmentally and physically - by passing comprehensive climate legislation. We must raise our voices in order to cut through the heavily financed lobbying of those who, for decades, have represented and benefited from the dirty fossil fuel industries. And we must fight tirelessly until our elected officials pass legislation that secures our energy future.

Gloria Reuben is a nationally known environmental activist and a special
advisor to The Alliance for Climate Protection.

Please visit