Newsweek Gets Coal Terribly Wrong

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"Newsweek Gets Coal Terribly Wrong"

Our guest blogger is JW Randolph, Legislative Associate for Appalachian Voices.

Daniel Stone published a piece on coal and energy over Newsweek’s The Gaggle called “West Virginia Mine Disaster Unlikely to Affect National Energy Debate.” David Roberts at Grist responded to Energy Committee Staffer Bill Wicker for a quote he had in the article, and it’s well worth the read. But the article was so full of misinformation and false pretexts that I wanted to spend some pixels correcting a few things, beginning with this paragraph:

Coal is the one fuel that powers most of what we do. It accounts for 49 percent of American power consumption, and as demand for power increases while the cost of alternatives (wind, solar, biofuels) remains high, coal is poised to play a bigger, not smaller, role in our energy landscape. To put it more crassly, the cost of coal is just too cheap. A kilowatt hour of coal power costs about $0.04, less than a third of renewables.


A) For 2009, coal provided just 44.6% of electricity, not the 49% Stone suggests (likely from the 2008 data.) If you are looking at “energy” then it is 22-23%, much less.

B) Saying that coal is poised to play a “bigger” role is ridiculous. Coal is declining, particularly production in Central Appalachia. It has been declining for the past two decades and is projected to continue downward. But not only that. It is getting deeper, thinner, and of less quality. The heat content is in decline as well, meaning that it takes more tons of coal to produce the same amount of electricity.

C) Delivered costs of coal are wildly different in different locations and in different coal plants. Central Appalachian coal (like that in West Virginia) is the most expensive coal on the domestic market.

D) Stone uses ballpark figures for the cost of a coal plant that is already built, but renewables that are not yet built. If you are looking at building a new coal plant versus investing in renewables, the two are cost competitive, even without a price on coal pollution (EIA). In fact, except for solar, nothing even doubles the cost of coal, and that’s without CCS.

E) The deeper we go for thinner seams of less quality coal, the more expensive central Appalachian coal gets and the more competitive natural gas, wind, geothermal, or biomass may look. The same is true for safety regulations. Coal companies fight them tooth and nail because safety isn’t free. This has an impact on energy policy. You can’t look at mining safety in a vacuum.

Secondly, I am concerned that many in the news media continually fail to appreciate the sacrifice of coal miners, whose deaths occur with alarming frequency both at home and overseas. Mr. Stone continues:

The reason safety isn’t included [in the cost of energy] is because accidents—from mine cave-ins to oil-rig deaths—don’t happen often enough for safety to become a formidable factor in the national discussion on our energy future. What’s more, the playing field isn’t all that tilted. Despite a bad week for coal miners, wind has also been fatal—14 men were killed working with wind energy in the mid ’90s, and more since, according to wind-industry analyst Paul Gipe. Not to mention the risks posed by nuclear. While most sectors have undergone regulation over the past few years to root out dangerous components, the reality is that all energy sectors are still risky in many ways.


A) Mining accidents happen all the time in the US. Over 300 people have died mining coal in the United States just in the last decade, nearly always exceeding 20 per year. It’s just that there isn’t always media saturation. Over 51,000 people have died mining coal in China in the same time period. That’s more than 3600 times the numbers that have been “killed by wind” in just one country and in half the time span.

B) Speaking of which, Mr. Stone uses MONSTROUS false equivalency regarding the different energy sectors. He says 14 people were killed working with wind energy in the mid-90s? What does that even mean? First of all, Gipe’s numbers are worldwide. That doesn’t even compare to the number of deaths from mining and processing coal in the United States alone. 18 people died in accidents mining coal in the US just last year, and that was a “great” year. Add in the 10,000 US coal miners who die each decade from black lung disease, and Mr. Stone’s comparison becomes even more toxic.

C) You can’t look at energy in a vacuum. Policy makers certainly don’t. Look at the externalized cost of what is happening to coal communities, particularly in Appalachia. Not only has coal had a negative impact on endemic Appalachian poverty, but the health costs are estimated to be more than $42 billion every year due to health impacts and life lost. There is no cost comparison. There is no risk comparison.

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