I have lived on the fringe of the Allegheny Plateau's coal fields my entire life and have seen firsthand the best and worst of modern (and not so modern) coal mining. Just like every large scale energy production process, coal mining and burning brings trade-offs for the energy it ultimately yields. Coal has been a reliable, domestically produced source of power for a very long time. It has been valuable not just for electrical generation and industrial production but as the primary source of residential heating in the first half of the twentieth century. Mining of that coal, particularly, has also significantly impacted the regional economy.
Despite those many positives, the long-term costs of using coal, especially to make electricity, have been substantial. It seems that whenever anyone raises concerns over those legitimate problems or supports alternative energy sources they are vilified as job killers waging a "War on Coal." Some have argued that this has not been a politically motivated assault, but that market forces and multiple environmental liabilities have doomed coal to a much smaller role.
This change is remarkably similar to two energy transitions that have occurred over the last 150 years. More than two-thirds of our energy production came from wood in 1870. By the beginning of the twentieth century, two-thirds came from coal. Sixty years later, oil and natural gas grabbed a much larger market share, especially for space heating. In each case, profound economic, technological and environmental factors drove those changes.
These were not random changes but ones brought about by changes in energy needs and the ways we converted that energy for transportation, heating and manufacturing. Each of these transitions is marked by revolutionary changes in conversion technology, the steam engine, electrical generation technologies and the internal combustion engine being the most notable. Was there a "War on Wood" in 1900? Undoubtedly, those that depended on wood for their livelihood thought so and times would have been difficult for them as society changed. But people and business decided that coal had advantages and jobs would transition as the energy sources did the same.
Such changes are challenging but economic activities of all sorts are dynamic and jobs often move from one sector to another. The journal Energy Policy reported that while the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012, natural gas gained 95,000 and wind and solar added 79,000. Meanwhile, the extraction of coal has caused serious long-term water pollution, sulfur-rich acid mine drainage degrading 3,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania. The volume of waste rock is staggering and mountain top removal mining has devastated 800,000 acres of forest land and the soil on which it grew. The sludge generated by the processing of coal and the ash left over from the burning of coal have caused their own set of serious problems throughout the Appalachians.
Even with the state-of-the-art emission controls, the burning of coal is the leading source of sulfur dioxide, produces half of the nation's mercury emissions and notable amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Coal may still have a place in America's energy future, but it seems clear it is one that is diminishing – and for many reasons.