Home Energy and Environment What Does Peak Coal in America Mean for Appalachia?

What Does Peak Coal in America Mean for Appalachia?

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rear viewAmerica is forecast to get less than 40% of its electricity from coal this year, mostly replaced by cheaper, less polluting natural gas and to a lesser extent by emerging renewables like solar & wind. That would be coal’s lowest level in more than 60 years:

Just five years ago, coal was flourishing in the U.S. With electricity demand and the price of natural gas both rising, coal was viewed as essential to keeping power costs under control. Utilities drew up plans to build dozens of coal-fired plants.

But around the same time, a revolution was under way in the natural gas industry. Drillers figured how to tap enormous deposits of previously inaccessible reserves. As supplies grew and the price of natural gas plummeted, the ground shifted under the electric-power industry. […]

Power plants that burn coal produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas, according to the Government Accountability Office, the regulatory arm of Congress. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain; nitrogen oxides cause smog; and carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

For coal industry apologists, here’s the real kick in the pants: “Even without the EPA rules, coal is not really competitive,” says Jone-Lin Wang, head of Global Power for the energy research firm IHS CERA. So much for coal executives’ fever dreams of a “war on coal.”

So if America really has put coal in its rear view mirror, what does it mean for Appalachia? Countries like Saudi Arabia are taking their oil profits and pouring them into renewable energy to prepare for the inevitable decline of their oil reserves. Is there a similar plan to prepare Appalachia for a world where its coal is too expensive and too dirty? Or any plan at all?

  • away from coal. That’s a dying, nearly dead, industry, that has never brought much of anything to Appalachia regardless, except for pollution, health problems, and poverty. As Jim Webb wrote in “Born Fighting”:

    The every hungry industrialists have discovered that West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia sat atop one huge vein of coal. And so the rape began. The people from the outside showed up with complicated contracts that the small-scale cattle raisers and tobacco farmers could not fully understand, asking for “rights” to mineral deposits they could not see, and soon they were treated to a sundering of their own earth as the mining companies ripped apart their way of life, so that after a time the only option was to go down into the hole and bring the Man his coal, or starve. The Man got his coal, and the profits it brought when he shipped it out. They got their wages, black lung, and the desecration of their land...Coal made this part of Appalachia a poverty-stricken basket case while the rest of the mountain region remained mired in isolation.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    Even before the coal barons began to extract coal from the region, the timber barons arrived, stripping the land of trees and causing erosion of the thin mountain soil. The 19th century belonged to timber, the 20th belonged to coal.

    Add to that the misuse of so much government money meant to lift the region out of poverty, money that found its way into the pockets of those who already had plenty, and you have the situation today. Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, and on south through the mountains – all have suffered the same fate.

    Is there an answer? I don’t know