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The new Republican Congress has the perfect opportunity to show the nation how government should work; as a constructive agent of incremental change, not merely as a decision-maker. This opportunity involves the phaseout of the production and use of coal for electrical generation. Can they summon the courage to do it? Personally, I doubt it because like all politicians they made bad promises to get elected, but it is worth doing if done correctly.

Underground coal mining is a bad profession and coal is a very bad actor environmentally. All underground operations are dangerous based on the physical setting and close quarters. They can also involve flammable-explosive and lung damaging dust and gases among other specific dangers. Good safety practices can reduce the risks; but only so far.  

Even if you believe, as I do, that man-made global warming is only a small part of the climate equation, within that small part coal has the worst potential impact by far.  The relative effect of worldwide use was pointed out in a May 2014, Wall Street Journal article, “The Case Against Burning Coal.”

“Burning the world’s [entire] conventional oil resource could raise the world’s temperature by an estimated 0.3°C. Conventional natural gas resources could add another 0.4°C. Unconventional oil–such as Alberta’s oil sands–could add another potential 0.5 °C… But the world’s coal resource alone could add nearly 15°C to the world’s temperature.”

The article explains that we cannot reasonably burn the “[entire] resource” of any fuel because that includes the all the deposits, while the reserve is a much smaller subset that is technically and economically recoverable, but it does put coal’s potential contribution impact in perspective.

Another simpler way to look at it is that coal produces 75 percent more carbon dioxide per kWh (kilowatt hour) than natural gas.

There are many industrial processes where coal is the best fuel or perhaps the only reasonable fuel, but electrical generation is not one of them. Yet, according to the U.S. EIA (Energy Information Administration), more than 10 times the coal is used in the U.S. for that purpose than all the others combined. In 2013, the U.S. used 858 million short tons of coal for generating electrical power, which dwarfs all other domestic uses totaling 67 million short tons.

Most coal-fired generating plants can be converted to better fuels, oil and natural gas, and these conversions also offer other energy saving and economic opportunities. The argument that these plants should be closed makes no sense until industrial level alternative energy generation is ready for primetime and, unfortunately, that appears a long way off. Just this week came the report that the large solar plant in the Mojave Desert is not performing anywhere near its predicted output efficiency and it’s using more natural gas to make up the difference.   

Allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good would be a terrible mistake because the perfect is often unobtainable.       

Nationally, the U.S. used 196 million coal mine labor hours in 2012, this equates to fewer than 95,000 man years of labor using 40-hour weeks. Coal mine labor hours are highly concentrated in 10 states and overwhelmingly in three; West Virginia (51 million labor hours), Kentucky (31 million labor hours), and Pennsylvania (19 million labor hours). Any dramatic reduction in coal production must address the concentrated adverse economic impacts long-term, which means support for infrastructure improvements, education, retraining, new industries and opportunities – not breadlines – in those areas.

Unlike the ARRA that steered untold millions to political favorites, these funds must be tightly targeted to provide intergenerational alternative solutions to the economic change that would benefit the entire nation. Coal miners are some of the hardest and smartest working people in the nation, given the chance they can do well at other things.

The U.S. has the technical and financial wherewithal to make this improvement and it should start as soon as possible.