The ‘War On Coal’ Is A Myth

by Daniel J. Weiss

Big polluters and their Congressional allies have created a new straw man to knock down with the invention of the so-called “War on Coal.” It is a multi-million dollar disinformation campaign funded by Big Coal polluters to protect their profits and distract Americans from the deadly effects of air pollution on public health.

However, with the number of coal jobs in key coal states actually on the rise since 2009, it’s more like peacetime prosperity than war in coal country. The War on Coal is nothing more than a new shiny object, designed by big polluters to distract Americans from the real war – the polluters’ attacks on their health – and the truth.

Coal companies and dirty utilities claim that long overdue requirements to reduce mercury, arsenic, smog, acid rain, and carbon pollution from power plants will kill jobs. In West Virginia, however, coal mining employment was higher in 2011 than at any time over the last 17 years. Federal jobs statistics also show modest coal mining job growth in coal states like Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In West Virginia, a recent report from the non-partisan West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy showed coal mining jobs are actually rising, with 1,500 new coal jobs added since 2009. In Pennsylvania, Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows a 2.3% increase in coal related jobs. And in Virginia, EIA data shows a 6.7% increase in coal mining employment from 2009 to 2010.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has promulgated or proposed new clean air standards for smog, acid rain, mercury, air toxics, and carbon pollution that will save lives, create jobs and protect public health. For example, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard alone could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma incidents, and 540,000 lost work days every year. This would provide at least $59 billion in economic benefits.

The Economic Policy Institute projects that the mercury standard will actually have a “positive net impact on overall employment – likely leading to the net creation of 84,500 jobs between now and 2015.” The jobs created by the standard, however, would not just be limited to certain industrial sectors. EPI’s study projects that “8,000 Jobs would be gained in the utility industry itself,” along with the over 80,500 jobs that would be created to build pollution control equipment.  While dirty coal companies claim that the mercury standard will cause massive unemployment, EPI notes that “only 10,600 jobs would be displaced due to higher energy costs.” Richard Morgenstern, a former Reagan and Clinton EPA official, predicts that the new standard will have “no net impact” on employment.

EPA predicts that its proposed carbon pollution standard for new power plants will have no impact on employment or existing coal plants. In fact, the standard simply complements existing market factors, as the EPA points out:

Because this standard is in line with current industry investment patterns, this proposed standard is not expected to have notable costs and is not projected to impact electricity prices or reliability.

So what is happening to King Coal?  The real culprit is the low price for natural gas. A February, 2012 analysis of coal plant retirements by the Analysis Group found that coal plant declines resulted from basic changes in market forces:

The sharp decline in natural gas prices, the rising cost of coal, and reduced demand for electricity are all contributing factors in the decisions to retire some … coal-fired generating units. These trends started well before EPA issued its new air pollution standards.

Coal industry executives themselves say that low natural gas prices, a warm winter, and a sluggish economy are the primary reasons for coal mining worker layoffs. The Bipartisan Policy Center noted that industry-commissioned doomsday projections of economic losses from EPA standards are vastly exaggerated by including unrelated regulations and worst-case scenarios.  BPC found that “Several investment analysts were conducted prior to EPA’s [rule] proposal and made worst case estimates about what EPA was likely to require.”

Coal generated electricity is relatively inexpensive because the public pays for the external costs from burning coal. These expensive harms include premature deaths, asthma attacks, respiratory ailments, lost productivity and the impacts of climate change. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that burning coal costs $62 Billion annually due to premature deaths, more respiratory ailments, and lost work days.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity – a front group for coal companies and dirty utilities — plans to spend at least $40 million in ads and lobbying to convince Congress to block these vital public health standards. Fortunately, voters won’t be fooled by this attempt to distract them from the real public health impacts of dangerous air pollution. We understand that this isn’t a war on coal. It’s a war on us.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.


16 Responses to The ‘War On Coal’ Is A Myth

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    Daniel J. Weiss wrote: “The ‘War On Coal’ Is A Myth”

    More’s the pity.

  2. Theodore says:

    There is no need for a war on coal. A big tax that grows every month to drive production down to zero in about 20 years should suffice.

  3. Andrew Moore says:

    Nail on the head! “War on Coal is the Pro coal smoke screen bought and paid for with your tax dollars to detract from what’s really going on. IT’S A COAL WAR,and that’s not a myth, it’s a legend.

  4. sinz54 says:

    How odd.

    Mr. Weiss says “The War on Coal is a Myth”–while hoping that it’s not a myth.

    On the one hand, he denies that coal is being hurt by new EPA regulations.

    On the other hand, he and all the other environmentalists want all use of coal in power plants stopped.

    This is yet another example of left-wing bait-and-switch: Assure people that EPA regulations won’t hurt the coal industry while advocating even stronger regulations that will.

    And a second bait-and-switch: Assert that what is really hurting the coal industry is abundant and cheap supplies of natural gas–while simultaneously trying to hobble the natural gas industry with severe restrictions on the use of fracking.

    So after all these bait-and-switch tactics are done, what remains? A fantasy of an America powered by windmills and solar panels. To which I say this: Take a calculator and figure out how many windmills it would take to replace the electricity generated by just one coal plant.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    You have no idea what you are talking about.

    “Windmills” are antiques that once were used to grind grain.

    WIND TURBINES on the other hand are modern high-tech machines that can easily replace all the coal fired power plants in the USA, and are already making great strides towards doing so.

    The commercially-exploitable wind energy resources of just four midwestern states are sufficient to produce more electricity than the entire USA consumes – and they can do it without poisoning children with toxic mercury pollution.

    So please take your belligerent ignorance and your Koch-funded talking points elsewhere.

  6. Ken Barrows says:

    War on coal? How about a war on growth? Anybody with me?

  7. Pangolin says:

    Long term economic growth is impossible on a finite planet. That’s just the physical reality of the situation; deal with it.

    Fewer than 600 people have been off the planet including suborbital flights. All of them came back. It’s this planet or nothing for the foreseeable future.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The irreducible problem is that your denialist fantasy is one where the laws of physics, atmospheric chemistry and climatology can be ignored while you and your genocidal idols in the fossil fuel death machine keep your snouts in the trough. I assume that you have no issue, or if you do so you value money over their lives and welfare.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sounds like the ‘war on cancer’.

  10. Leif says:

    Not a war on growth, Ken. A war on the ability to profit from polluting the commons. I can’t, you can’t, unless you buy into the lie, Corpro/People can and do.

  11. Theodore says:

    The mixed message double-talk is disturbing. This article, like many in this blog seems to be written by fence sitters who don’t want to take the unpopular position that higher prices on fossil fuels are a good thing, or that we are actually trying to do away with an entire industry. The only acceptable response to climate change is to make the fossil fuel industry completely illegal. That means 100% renewable energy as soon as possible. My complaint about fracking is simply that it makes gas cheap and abundant, and thus makes renewable energy expensive in comparison. My complaint about mountain-top removal is that it makes coal cheaper. I see these as side issues, applied to the fossil fuel industry as cuts in a death of a thousand cuts. I would rather not do this dance. My preference is to just tax the industry till it is dead. The fence only hurts when you sit on it.

  12. Dave Thomas says:

    Just think of how many more jobs in coal if Romney was President, probably double Obama’s growth numbers.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Very well said, Theodore. The only slim hope for humanity is total decarbonisation as rapidly as humanly possible. If that does away with the wealth of the genocidal fossil fuel plutocrats, so very much the better. Preferably they will need only a few dollars a week for tobacco and sweets, while ‘doing their time’.

  14. Najwa Gadaheldam says:

    Is not worth to change the reality, of course coal is polluting the environment to some extend with others, so the solution can’t be by starting a war against call companies but by cooperating with the big companies on how to balance between growth, more jobs and saving the environment for tomorrows generation and planet..

  15. Theodore says:

    Are you equating a war on coal to a war on growth or advocating a war on growth?

  16. Theodore says:

    Ken – Are you equating a war on coal to a war on growth or advocating a war on growth?