Coal mining through the windshield

Coal mining through the windshield

I’m just back from a little trip through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. It wasn’t specifically meant to be a tour of coalfields, but it did wind up causing a lot of thought about the black stuff that’s probably powering my computer even as I type this.

Driving through southern West Virginia, we saw, in a way that was new to me, the absolute predominance of the coal industry. That isn’t news to a lot of you, but I just had never been through places which so obviously owe their existence to mining. There’s plenty of mining activity where I’m from, in Western Pennsylvania, but not like this. We saw piles of coal, train cars full of coal, and coal tipples soaring over the ravines. We may also have spotted some removed mountaintops, but we’re not sure.

Itmann, West Virginia

And the signage along the road reminded me over and over again of the local economic picture. There were signs for Appalachian Power and signs for mineworkers’ unions. And there were head-turning signs, on a Cat equipment plant and elsewhere, that said: "YES, COAL. Clean, carbon-neutral coal."

A brief search reveals that I’m not the first person to find this slogan absurd. This is a blog post that echoes my reaction: "Has the chemistry of coal changed recently?" This is a video, expanding on the theme, to be taken with enormous grains of salt. And this is a Charleston Gazette article in which West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd uses the same phrase, with a tiny sliver of added context.

It seems that "clean, carbon-neutral coal" is a marketing chimera that refers, with only the loosest of connections, to an idea for sequestering the emissions of coal-burning power plants. This is not a technique that’s really in use right now. Coal mining and burning, as it’s done right now, is truly dirty and it ain’t carbon neutral. 

As luck would have it, we returned home to find the awesome documentary Harlan County, USA in our mailbox. It rounded out the picture by testifying to the human cost of coal. This is one dark business. And it’s a Virginia business too, of course.

So, anyway, who’s got a good power-conservation tip for us?

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