Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What Appalachia Can Learn from Afghanistan

I was prompted to write this after seeing the Kentucky premiere of the documentary "Coal Country" in Lexington last night. Even after covering Dave Cooper's Mountaintop Removal Road Show a few years back and doing several reports on energy and the economy, I was still privy to many touching stories and experiences I had yet to hear up to that point. I suggest seeing it whenever you can to learn more about this issue.

Coal Keeps the Lights On
We've all seen that bumper sticker around Kentucky, haven't we? Or West Virginia, or Alabama, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the rest of Appalachia? That's because Big Coal is on a very costly PR campaign to win back public opinion after those nasty "fact" things came back to bite them.

Next to wood, coal is the oldest source of energy humans have used. Since the mid-18th century, we've been burning coal to power our homes and workplaces across the globe. Even today, coal continues to be a staple of Earth's energy. Here in Kentucky, for example, 93% of our energy is coal-powered. The figures are higher in West Virginia and Indiana, but Kentucky ranks a solid #3. Coincidentally, these states are also the places where power is most affordable.

Likewise, looking at that same chart, we see that coal only keeps 14% of the lights on in New York. They also have power costs of up to 15 cents per kilowatt hour (KWH), compared to Kentucky's five cents per KWH. The facts don't lie; coal does keep the lights on, and its less of a burden on our wallet than any other source.

But there's a slight problem; coal is past its peak. Way past. Even with new developments in technology, and the inception of evil practices like Mountaintop Removal Mining that yield the most gain for the least work, we have yet to mine as much coal as we did in 1990. 20 years of advancement, but we're still well past the peak, try as we might to deny it. Coal is almost gone. So what are we to do?

The True Cost of Coal
While we have more advanced fossil fuel sources like oil, even that's close to peaking. And, like oil, the price we pay as consumers is not the true cost of using that fuel. The CBO released a 2006 study that stated the true cost of fuel is around $12 a gallon through taxes, not at gas stations. Basically, if we pay $2.50 a gallon at the pump, we still pay around $9.50 per gallon to fund diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and to prop up dictatorships like the Saud family so OPEC can sell us cheap oil.

Coal is the same way. When we take into account the destruction and havoc wreaked upon the landscape, reclamation efforts and the surrounding communities' tainted water supplies and depreciation of homes, the true cost of using coal is really much higher than 5 cents per KWH.

So at this point, you might be wondering why I brought Afghanistan into this?

In Afghanistan, Opium Keeps the Lights On
70% of the world's Opium is grown in Afghanistan. For those of you unaware, Opium, extracted from the poppy plant, is the main ingredient in heroin, one of the world's most deadly and addictive narcotics. While it would be nice to torch all of the poppy fields in Afghanistan, that would effectively destroy Afghanistan's economy. As horrible of a drug as Opium is, people in Afghanistan must grow it and sell it, or they can't put food on the table. Their kids will starve without Opium.

Opium is to Afghanistan what Coal is to Appalachia. The consequences of using it are monstrous and destructive, but ceasing production altogether would also render most of the population unemployed. Coal poisons water supplies, covers homes in coal dust and has negative long-term health effects to those exposed to it, but that doesn't stop it from being the only job in the area other than fast food. Would you rather make money and have cancer, or be broke and healthy? That's the conundrum.

The Coal Side of the Economic Crisis
What is a conundrum for everyday Appalachians is a blessing for the coal industry. Coal mining companies like Massey Energy like it that way; when people depend on them for their livelihood, they can treat the environment and their workers however they see fit. Just as the Taliban keep their poppy fields healthy; when the people depend on you for paychecks that pay for food and shelter, they are powerless to fight.

This is why coal is such a touchy and divisive issue for Appalachians; the wedge is created when environmentalists and families with traditions of coal mining dating back several generations clash. When the environmental topic has been discussed, both sides usually stalemate when it comes to jobs. Sure, maybe coal is bad for the environment, but it keeps people working. However, this talking point is void when we take into account the practice of Mountaintop Removal Mining.

MTR mining is when the tops of mountains are blasted off, and coal deposits are scooped up while the waste is dumped into nearby streams and rivers. Because mining has peaked long ago, and underground mining is far too dangerous and costly, most companies find this practice yields the most coal with the least work. Coal companies can make more money this way while simultaneously hiring less workers.

This is why there are considerably less coal miners today than there were several years ago. People are losing jobs in coal mining, but it has much more to do with greedy profiteering and wolfish capitalism than with environmental concern.

So, we're still at an impasse. What's the solution to all of this? Is it simply breathe coal dust and work while coal rapes the planet or work in fast food? Or is there another solution?

Land Ownership: The Real Solution
Right now, coal mining is allowed to go on full speed ahead, because the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) can stake out any land they deem to be potentially productive for coal extraction. There are still dozens upon dozens of permits for the ACE, allowing them thousands of acres of land to reserve for future coal mining endeavors. So, the solution is land development.

Think about it logically; if there are only jobs in coal mining or fast food, and if coal mining is destructive and fast food not profitable, then why not use all of that undeveloped land to bring in new industries and jobs? Maybe some of those acres reserved for the ACE can be instead reserved to build a university. There'd be numerous construction jobs, teaching jobs and other staff jobs for people to just pick up and start earning money. Or maybe a hospital, to bring proper medical care to the people who have had their health jeopardized by years of exposure to coal dust and slurry.

The same solution for Appalachia can be the same solution for Afghanistan. The fight there can be won by using all of the land cultivated for poppies to grow something else that's useful and beneficial for the people growing it. Instead of harvesting heroin, people could grow soybeans or wheat for food. Or they could grow industrial hemp for fabrics and paper. And as the Taliban would lose the money they make from Opium sales, Afghanistan's people would gain back their health and livelihoods. Just as Massey would be denied permits from the ACE because of clean water regulation, that land could be developed for things like education, health care and other non-extractive industries.

Instead of agonizing over symptoms, its time we shift our focus to the problem, and all get to work on making this world a better, safer, healthier place to live.

1 comment:

  1. Instabilty and war are the primary factors responsible for increased opium production in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion, and during the brief rule of the Taliban, opium production was either very limited, or deliberated curtailed. Soon after the war is over, production is likely to plummet.