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Coal Takes Center Stage In Latest EPA Drama

“Gloom and doom for the economy,” “job-killing,” and “radical environmental and anti-coal jobs agenda” are just some of the verbal grenades being lobbed in the direction of Gina McCarthy, who has been tapped by President Obama to head the US Environmental Protection Agency. McCarthy was in for a bare-knuckles brawl at yesterday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the reaction to her nomination from certain quarters was understandable, given the critical role that coal has played in powering the US economy and McCarthy’s role in putting the screws on emissions from coal fired power plants. So…who is really to blame for the decline of coal?

Republicans opposed Gina McCarthy nomination

Coal by Jeffrey Beall via flickr.

Killing Off Jobs In Coal Country

Some of that negative verbiage was launched earlier this week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as reported by our friends over at The Hill. McConnell came out swinging at McCarthy after a personal pre-hearing meeting with the nominee, but his own home state region of Appalachia provides ample evidence that coal can kill off its own jobs without any help from crazy-eyed radicals.

Specifically, with the development of highly mechanized coal extraction methods, particularly mountaintop removal, Appalachia has been bleeding coal jobs since the 1940’s even though production has increased in recent years.

Self-cannibalization is just part of the US coal industry’s current problems, such as they are. Another major challenge is the availability of cheap fuel from a rival fossil fuel, namely natural gas, as well as a downward trend in the cost of wind and solar power.

Even so, the recent increase in coal production has occurred despite the closure of coal fired power plants here in the US (or in some cases, the switch to biomass or natural gas), thanks to a booming global market for US coal exports.

The loss of coal mining jobs combined with the advent of destructive mountaintop removal has left coal mining communities holding the bag in terms of economic development, or rather lack thereof. Studies have shown that far from realizing an overall benefit, coal-producing counties in Appalachia have suffered a long term lag in every major measure of economic development and public health compared to other counties in the same region.

Job-Killing And Just Plain Old Killing

That takes care of the coal production side of the job-killing argument. The consumption side is neatly expressed by the Heritage Foundation, which earlier this week ran through a series of rebuttals to statements by McCarthy in her current capacity as assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

I’m not going to provide a link to the article (you can easily find it yourself) but here is a sample exchange that demonstrates why, at least in come quarters, the public health and global climate consequences of excessive coal consumption are really nothing to worry about:

“[McCarthy]: Greenhouse gas pollution, through its contribution to global climate change, presents a significant threat to Americans’ health and to the environment upon which our economy and security depends.”

“[Heritage]: Carbon dioxide does not have the characteristics of a conventional pollutant, but is a colorless, odorless, non-toxic gas on which all life depends. Yet the EPA has regulated it as harmful to human health.”

Where to begin with an argument like that? One can only imagine that back in the day, whaling companies and woodcutters exhibited the same kind of desperate flailing as their source of livelihood gradually succumbed to the inevitable march of history, EPA or no EPA.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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