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Coal is an inexpensive source of energy, economically speaking, and a costly one in ecological terms. Its carbon emissions are the highest of any energy source. In 2012, coal accounted for 25 percent of American greenhouse gas emissions and 44 percent of global carbon emissions. In the past few years, atmospheric carbon has continued its upward climb and now averages over 400 parts per million. It was only around 1990 that it passed 350 parts per million, the number scientists have converged on as the threshold of potentially catastrophic climate change.
Twice, in 1999 and 2002, federal district courts in West Virginia found that valley fills violated legal duties to protect streams. In 2001 and 2003, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, reversed those decisions, allowing valley fills to go forward. During the decade after federal courts allowed mountaintop removal to continue, about half of America’s electricity came from coal, while China’s boom raised global coal demand much as it raised prices for other industrial building-blocks, such as steel and concrete.
Those booms seem to be over. On February 9, the federal Energy Information Agency reported that January had seen the lowest levels of American coal production since 1983. American power companies have replaced coal with natural gas, which is now cheaper than coal, thanks to new (and controversial) drilling techniques. Coal’s share of American electricity production fell from about half in 2006 to just over a third in 2015. Chinese coal demand has gone from rapid growth a few years ago, which drove up the value of coal companies, to outright decline.
The FIA report found the largest decline in production in Appalachia, and predicted that coal mining there would fall a further 8 percent over 2016. On February 22, the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, reported that the combined market value of the largest four American mining companies had fallen from a 2011 peak of $34 billion to just $150 million. Two of the four, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy last year.
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A gift from the Mesozoic to the Industrial Age, source of London’s pea soup fogs and of violent labor strikes before the New Deal, coal can feel anachronistic in the twenty-first century. It powered an older generation of iconic factories—the steel Mills of Gary and Alliquippa—and a fading kind of community among workers. Miners’ unions were the spine of the British Labor Party and arch-Democratic Appalachia. Today the remnants of these towns and villages lean to Donald Trump and the similarly nationalist U.K. Independence Party.
But American coal, right now, is riding out one of its great booms—by quantity, the biggest yet, and, to judge by trends, perhaps the biggest there will ever be. Coal, more than any other fuel, does harm where it is burned, and where it is dug. And geology is forever, at least compared to the lives of people and nations. Many other environmental harms yield in a lifetime as toxins disappear and ecological health returns. After Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, waterways that had been devastated by pollution recovered rapidly. Lake Erie and the Hudson River still hold massive toxic deposits in their silty bottoms, but their fish and plant life have returned, and they are officially open for swimming. Even coal’s killer fogs pass and take with them acid’s erosion of statues and buildings. But Appalachian streams will be flowing from the broken, heaped stone of valley fills for millions of years.