Writers on the Range: Coal, guns, freedom
October 16, 2017
Coal Guns Freedom: I saw these three words on a bumper sticker in a small Colorado town. It struck me as funny at first, like the refrain of a bad country song. A few days later I was in northwestern New Mexico, watching the rising sun illuminate a narrow band of yellow-brown clouds on the horizon. The smoggy soup of sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants emanated from two huge coal-fired power plants. Suddenly that bumper sticker didn't seem so funny anymore.
The people of the Four Corners have experienced that cloud in one form or another nearly every day for the past half-century. We've been told that this is the price we pay to keep the lights on in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and that we have no choice but to live with it. To stop burning coal, or even try to mitigate the harm, we've been told, will put thousands of hard-working Americans out of work, send electricity costs skyrocketing, and dim our lights and computers.
Now it's becoming clear that King Coal was all a big lie.
By the middle of the 20th century, the dirty, inconvenient, expensive coal was all but obsolete as steam locomotives were driven to extinction by diesel, homeowners ditched their coal furnaces and cook stoves and hydropower provided most of the nation's electricity.
Facing an existential crisis, the coal industry executives knew they could not compete based on the merits of their fuel. Instead, they set out to imbue it with symbolism and mythology. Coal is not just coal, the lobbyists argued. It's abundant, it's reliable and it deserves a seat of honor in the pantheon of American culture, alongside cowboys, sacrosanct guns and, yes, freedom. Most of all, coal was equated with honest jobs for hard-working miners.
Politicians deployed the mythology for their campaigns and policymaking. Some states required public institutions to heat with coal, and in 1952, the feds released a blueprint for a Western electrical grid that would result in 3,000 percent more coal-burning — a dream that was realized and then some by the 1980s. In a blatant act of market interference, Congress passed a law in 1978 that effectively required power plants to burn coal and nothing else. Coal strengthened its stranglehold on the grid.
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Today, that grip is finally loosening. Natural gas prices have plummeted in the last decade, putting coal at an economic disadvantage. Several giant coal plants in the West are slated for retirement in the not-too distant future, and the plants that are still running are putting out less and less power. The myths that coal is necessary for grid reliability, and that it's the cheapest fuel available, are fading.
Yet the most powerful symbolism around coal persists — the lingering, erroneous notion that it provides jobs that other industries do not. In fact, for every job lost in the coal industry, at least one has risen to take its place in some other sector of electricity generation. The nation's coal power plants and mines employ about 160,000 people, according to government figures, while the wind and solar industry provides more than 475,000 jobs. Coal jobs carry far more symbolic and therefore political heft, however, since no one has yet figured out how to write a good country-and-western song about solar-panel installation.
When Barack Obama was castigated for waging a so-called "War on Coal," he was not accused of trying to mitigate a catastrophic global habit, but of directly attacking coal miners, who have come to symbolize rural, white, American culture (85 percent of coal miners are white men). When President Trump demonstrates that he "digs coal," by rolling back regulations, he's banking on rural nostalgia and pushing back against Obama, who became a symbol of urban elitism, progressivism and blackness to portions of white America.
The regulation rollback is good for coal's bottom line, yet instead of using the savings to hire more workers, companies have poured the extra revenue into executive pay — which on average is four times that of a miner toiling underground — and on generous bonuses. And among the rescinded rules are those aimed at protecting miner health and safety — this during a time when coal-mining fatalities are on the rise again.
President Trump is able to get away with all of this because he's got the myth behind him. As for the land, the air, the water, the people who live near and work in the coal plants and mines, they get to pay the price for "Coal, Guns and Freedom."
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Feb. 2018).
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