The EPA has set new limits on water pollution caused by coal mining, only days after President Obama angered environmentalists by opening up huge swaths of coastline to offshore drilling. The drilling story received louder coverage, but the mining announcement should have a far larger impact on America's energy future.
Offshore drilling will take many years to study and set up, and may not even be economically viable along the East Coast. Coal, on the other hand, is the most abundant energy source in the United States, which has a quarter of the world's reserves and generates 45 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants.
At issue is a controversial mining practice called mountaintop removal, which literally blasts the tops off mountains to get at the coal underneath, with disastrous environmental consequences. The EPA has zeroed in on water pollution in Appalachia caused by companies that dump blasted sediment into nearby rivers and streams, decimating ecosystems and dirtying local water supplies. By curtailing water pollution, the new requirements will inherently limit the mountaintop removal method.
Coal companies have predictably issued enraged statements about pending damage to the Appalachian economy, but it's worth remembering that one of the business perks of mountaintop removal is how little labor it requires compared to older mining techniques. By turning to explosives, coal companies eliminated thousands of jobs in Appalachia as well as contaminating water supplies and causing "elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities," according to a recent article in Science.
In a nod to the coal lobby, Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have included funding for "clean coal" technology in a draft of their climate bill. The White House, for its part, is balancing multiple interests and agendas with this week's raft of energy announcements, which also included raising average fuel efficiency standards to 35.5 mpg by 2016.
But if you balance offshore drilling -- which could take 10 years to get started, or never happen at all -- against the immediate
devastation that is currently caused by mountaintop removal, the environmental lobby may end up counting this week as a win.