Coal: An Unsustainable Future

This post was written by Mike Rama, SEMBA ’17.

On Wednesday, February 1, the Senate passed a resolution to remove the Stream Protection Act, a decision that is certain to be stamped with the seal of approval by President Trump in the coming weeks. As summarized by Coal Age, a pro-coal mining news source:

“The final rule (Stream Protection Act) updated the 33-year-old regulations with stronger requirements for surface coal mining operations. The rule would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to the uses they were capable of supporting prior to mining activities, and replant these areas with native trees and vegetation, unless that would conflict with the implemented land use. The rule requires the testing and monitoring of the condition of streams that might be affected by mining — before, during and after their operations — to provide baseline data that ensures operators can detect and correct problems that could arise, and restore mined areas to their previous condition.”

54 senators opposed the Stream Protection Act, arguing that the law was too burdensome and would kill jobs in the coal industry.

However, scientific and statistical facts undermine these senators’ support for the industry. First, indisputable scientific evidence has verified coal’s harmful impact on the environment, and also to the health and wellbeing of humans and all other living species, especially when exposed to waterways. Secondly, we have the technology, science, and resources to successfully invest in sustainable, reliable and less harmful energy, allowing us to depend far less on foreign energy sources. From my point of view, it’s plain and simple — the coal industry makes absolutely no sense in trying to maintain.

Proponents of coal argue a contraction of the industry would result in job loss. But to that, I’d say, why settle for less when you could have more — much more. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mining industry employed 843,800 people in 2014, ranging from extraction to support activity roles. In comparison, the solar industry contributed 173,800 jobs that same year, varying from installation to project developers. A substantial difference for sure, almost four times more jobs in fact, until you factor in the output of production. In 2015, coal supplied the country with 18 percent of energy used, while solar supplied a mere 0.42 percent of national energy consumption. That calculates to a difference of more than 40 times the energy but for only 4 times the job creation. The relatively low cost of fossil fuels for consumers compared to solar in the short term, disregarding the economics of social welfare, certainly influences todays lopsided energy habits. Now imagine if the country ran on 5, 10, or 18 percent solar; I wonder what the solar industry employment numbers would look like then? As well as the significantly lowered costs associated with solar as a result of more abundant and diversified usage. Keep in mind, this does not even include other renewable energy jobs like wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and hydroelectricity. Fun fact: the solar industry employed over 260,000 in 2016, a 49.5 percent increase in two years.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you, there’s a lot more to it than employment. But it boggles my brain to try to grasp with the continuous love affair so many have with fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s tradition and power – the industrial revolution shaped the world to what it is today, and fossil fuels have the established ability of creating swift economic, though unsustainable, development and diplomatic power. Perhaps it’s greed and corruption – Transparency International recently announced their yearly worldwide corruption scores for 2016, revealing an average country score of 43 out of 100 (100 being best), with the US placing 18 with a score of 74. Furthermore, over the last 10 years the fossil fuel industry has spent US$2.65 billion towards lobbying efforts.

Nevertheless, we as a nation must make a choice.  We can continue down the dirty beaten path that is coal, focusing only on the short term, quarterly results. Or we can invest in the future, for the greater good of humanity with an emphasis for tomorrow’s prosperity. No matter what, the decisions we make today will be history tomorrow, read in academic settings worldwide in the following generations to come. How the pages will read can go one of two ways: Hailed as change makers or cursed as negligent progenitors.