Mining is mining -- it involves tearing up earth to reach valuable deposits. It's inherently destructive.
But no mining method reaches the level of destructiveness of mountaintop removal mining, a practice that employs mind-bogglingly large machinery to lop off mountaintops in Appalachia, dump the debris into mountain streams and valleys, and walk off with the coal.
It's brutally efficient, as long as you don't care about the environmental impacts. The impact, to put it succinctly, is the sure death of those buried streams and whatever life had thrived there.
The Bush Administration saw that destruction as minimal, compared to the economic benefits of mining and burning coal. The Obama Administration, though, is taking a much more progressive and long view on the subject. It is moving to reverse an 11th hour Bush Administration rule that would have made it easier for companies to obliterate Appalachia to exploit coal deposits.
Coal is a bad bet. It's destructive to extract it, and burning it produces more climate-warming carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel. It also creates air pollution in the form of acid rain, which kills mountain streams hundreds of miles from the smokestack; it forms smog, which causes debilitating and deadly lung and heart disease; and it causes mercury contamination of our lakes and rivers, which makes many wild-caught fish unsafe to eat.
No, there is no "clean coal" -- a term used to describe a future technology that would capture carbon dioxide emissions (but do nothing to stop the destruction at coal mines). The Dirty Lie campaign has done an admirable job counteracting the coal industry's propaganda on that subject, and The Daily Green recently honored the campaign's spokeswoman, Gloria Reuben with a Heart of Green Award.
So it's a bad bet, when you consider the pervasive -- and expensive -- problems that result. It's a bad bet when you consider that the Obama Environmental Protection Agency, and soon Congress, are likely to pass the nation's first-ever regulations on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Just as offshore oil drilling is a bad bet, coal mining is a bad bet.
Helping coal be extracted cheaply at the expense of the environment is exactly the wrong signal for government to send to the market. For decades, coal and other fossil fuels have been burned cheaply, fueling our wealth and prosperity -- but leaving us with an ecological debt that is proving expensive. Like the financial crisis, we have mortgaged our environment, and now we have to pay to stay in our home (Earth).
President Obama is making better bets than Bush did. He's not betting on coal or oil, however safe they might seem in the short term. He's betting on renewable energy and a far more energy efficient America. And in his speech on science policy yesterday he bet on scientific and engineering ingenuity. He bet that our best and brightest minds, if supported by government money -- yes, it takes tax dollars, just like fossil fuel subsidies took tax dollars in decades past -- can get the job done.
It's a big job. The destruction in Appalachia is easy to see. The threat of global warming is far more pervasive, but less obviously dramatic: slowly rising sea levels, increased wildfires, more intense storms, more prolonged droughts, more diseases spreading farther, the creeping death of species extinctions. Cheap coal, though, is responsible for both. It's a bad bet, when you consider all that's at stake.
Obama, who honed his poker-playing skills in Chicago to woo political enemies to his side, seems to know a bad bet when he sees one.
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