The Morality of Coal

“Our people are dying from the poisonous waters and air. Cancer death rates soar in my homeland, making it one of the highest of any area in the nation. I thought I lived in the “land of the free,” but the only thing free in central Appalachia is the free hand that the coal corporations are given by our state and national representatives to bomb and kill our land and its people. It’s murder, damn it! And any state or national elected representative who supports this Mountain Bombing for coal should be charged as an accessory to Murder!” — Mickey McCoy, former mayor of Inez, Kentucky.

Recent scientific research has shown a dramatic increase in birth defects among children born in areas in which there is mountaintop removal for coal. Millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate explosives are detonated daily in these communities, leaving toxic residue in the wind, the soil and the water.

It’s easy to blame these problems on the coal companies and on the politicians who do their bidding. Certainly some of the blame falls there, but we also need to look in the mirror. Minnesota has no fossil fuel resources yet 57% of the energy we use comes from coal. We are #22 in fossil fuel use in the country.

We demand cheap energy but there really is no such thing as cheap energy. It comes at a price. If we are morally honest with ourselves, we understand that someone else is paying the price.

  • Cheap natural gas for the rest of us is costly for families exposed to benzene from fracking, who are suffering infertility, blood disorders and increased rates of cancer.
  • Cheap coal for the rest of us is very costly to the children in Appalachia who suffer life-altering and even life-ending birth defects.
  • (For those who believe the real reason for the Gulf War was oil, “cheap” oil has been costly indeed; more than $4 trillion in military spending and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the Middle East.)

Energy use is a moral issue that we need to tackle with more honesty and rigor than we usually do in American society.

While industry and transportation are the leading consumers of energy in Minnesota, each and every one of us holds a small part of the problem — and a small part of the solution — in our hands. There are 5.3 million people in our state. That’s a lot of hands. We really could do quite a lot.

  • What are you doing in your home? Coal produces our electricity. Have you done all you can to decrease your electricity usage? How can you influence Xcel Energy in its development of renewable resources?
  • What are you doing in your workplace? If you own a business, where does your energy come from? Can you supplement it with renewables? If you work in a business, do you leave lights and computers on at night? What other ways might you influence your business or businesses that you come in contact with to make a change?
  • How do we operate our state? Are we electing people who make wise energy choices? Are we supporting the people we elect?

Coal in this legislative session

In 2007, the Next Generation Energy Act set pollution reduction goals for the state. During the 2011 legislative session, quite a few members of the Minnesota House and Senate tried to repeal part of the law. Senate File 86 would have rolled back restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions by utility companies and allowed a 30% increase in coal-burning capacity.

On May 27, Governor Mark Dayton vetoed Senate File 86. In his veto letter he wrote:

  • “It is unwise and unnecessary…Minnesota does not need to build a power plant for at least the next 15 years” (according to plans submitted by the Public Utilities Commission).
  • “Minnesota imports 100% of the coal required to operate a power plant, and the costs for coal and coal transportation have increased dramatically in the last few years. Over $600 million leaves Minnesota’s economy every year to purchase coal.”
  • “Coal-fired electricity poses unacceptable risks to human health and to our climate.”

It’s heartening to see a politicians putting human health first. It’s important that we stay on top of energy issues and that we take the time to communicate our concerns to ALL of our elected officials. That $600 million leaving the state surely must be a concern for state Republicans as well as Democrats.

Midwestern Energy News is a good source of energy-related news stories. Midwest Energy News is a project of Fresh Energy, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for clean energy policy, and the RE-AMP media center.

Will we hold ourselves accountable?

I came across this quote recently, from the poet W.H. Auden. It speaks to the to the situation we find ourselves in today.

“We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”

It’s painful to think that the simple act of turning on a light could be harming our fellow Americans, but that is the truth. It’s time to let the illusion of cheap energy die.

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