The first promise I made to myself when I agreed to have an online column in the illustrious Blargus, was that I would write my own articles and not respond to other columnists, no matter how much they angered me. Admittedly, I thought I would have to resist responding to Mytheos, but that was before I read Jonah Blumstein’s latest response article. Aside from referring to my “reflexive liberalism” (I promise you, I am not a liberal), Jonah’s article amazed me in its ability to make absurd assertions and miss the point of my article entirely.
Jonah’s thesis, as much as one was detectable, was that clean coal exists. Blumstein’s clean coal is different from the clean coal that the coal industry talks about. He does not refer to the process that cleans some chemicals out of coal emissions, which also creates toxic coal sludge. Jonah’s clean coal is western coal, which contains less sulfur. He believes that a conspiracy between the United Mine Workers Union and Senator Robert Byrd has forced coal power plants to buy and burn high sulfur coal from Appalachia. Whether or not this conspiracy exists is utterly irrelevant. Low-sulfur coal is not clean, it just has less sulfur. Jonah failed to address the three major points of my column: coal mining is extremely and inherently destructive, any coal burning will release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we do not have time to waste waiting for fantasy technologies to fix these two major problems. Jonah’s low-sulfur coal is not lower in mercury or lead and, obviously, is not lower in carbon. Just to make sure no one believes Jonah’s western coal is a sensible alternative, let us explore one of the largest western coal mines in Black Mesa, Arizona.
Since 1968, Peabody Coal has been exploiting Hopi and Navajo land in northern Arizona. The Black Mesa coal mine is one of the largest strip mines in the United States and has been the subject of indigenous anger and resistance since its inception. Due to Peabody’s mining more than 12,000 Navajo have been removed from their land, the largest removal of native people since the 1880s. Additionally, Peabody coal has been responsible for draining more than half of the Navajo Aquifer in the extremely dry region. In an average year of the mine’s operation Peabody was responsible for more than half of the water taken from the aquifer.
Mining at Black Mesa stopped in 2005 because the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada, which bought all of the Black Mesa coal, shut down because it violated the Clean Air Act. The plant emitted 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year from Jonah’s low-sulfur western coal. However, last December the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) allowed Peabody to restart mining, and continue destroying Navajo and Hopi communities until 2026 or the water runs out, whichever comes first. (Side note: The OSM is an absurd bureaucracy that gives out awards for the best strip mine reclamation. Reclamation is a euphemism for planting grass after destroying an ecosystem to mine coal.) All this oppression for Jonah’s low-sulfur coal!
Regardless of its sulfur content, or the fantasies of Jonah Blumstein, coal will never be a clean energy source. Coal mining, like all fossil fuel exploitation, destroys local environments, oppresses local (often indigenous) people, and contributes to climate change. Our fossil-fuel economy is based on the exploitation of land and people from Appalachia, Arizona, Alberta, Ecuador, and many more. Exploiting new sources of coal in the West would simply expand the destruction of Appalachia to the rest of the country. It clearly would do nothing to slow climate change or stop environmental destruction.
The only way to stop the exploitation of these communities and to stop the worse effects of climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground.