Coal produces nearly half the electricity in the U.S., but the mercury, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide it emits also make it one of the most controversial energy sources.
New EPA regulations and a national Sierra Club campaign have added to rising anti-coal sentiment. For many environmental activists, coal represents an old, dirty source of power, but for coal-mining communities around the country, the story is different.
Coal still king in Greene County, Pa.
One of those places is Greene County, Pa., in the far southwest corner of the state. It is bordered on two sides by West Virginia, and outside of its towns, it is filled with winding country roads flanked by rolling hills. Here, coal still reigns.
Every summer, the county hosts the King Coal Show, a week-long festival with mine rescue contests, a parade, and the Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal Queen Pageant. On a stormy Sunday evening in August, high school girls in evening gowns touted their coal-mining pedigrees along with their good grades and volunteer work. Like many in the area, most could find a great-grandfather, uncle or father who worked in the mines to claim as their connection to the industry.
One in five jobs in Greene County is in mining, and county commissioner Pam Snyder said a third of the county’s general fund comes from taxes on coal. Here, "coal is not a dirty four-letter word," Snyder said.
“Coal means jobs, sustainability on our tax base, families being able to make a good living, raise their children, have decent health-care,” Snyder said.
In August, the Obama administration put in place new rules designed to cut the amount of air pollution from coal-fired power plants by more than half, a move the EPA says would reduce asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks in 31 states. The EPA is drafting global warming rules that could hit coal even harder. And this summer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million to the Sierra Club campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants.
Snyder said she does not see anti-coal campaigns as an attack on her community’s way of life. Rather, it is more like a misunderstanding.
“I think if you live in a part of the country where coal has no place and never existed, you are just used to turning on your light switch,” Snyder said, “never giving thought to where that electricity’s being powered from or how it’s getting into (your) home.”
Snyder said she understands why people take their power for granted, but argues those who oppose coal as a power source need to realize how big a role it plays in the nation’s energy portfolio.
‘You need to be mining coal to get paid’
Greene County is home to four major underground mines, including two of the largest in the country, Enlow Fork and Bailey Mine, which together span 22 miles north to south and spill into neighboring West Virginia.
Miners at Consol Energy’s Bailey mine ride an elevator down 700 feet and take a half-hour-long ride on an underground trolley just to get to the job site. There, a massive automated shearing machine lumbers along an exposed wall of coal and slices away at the coal seam. Braces hold the ceiling up until the cutting drums have cleared, then re-position farther down the wall. Chunks periodically fall from the ceiling into a sludge of water and coal dust.
Highly mechanized longwall mining is a far cry from the days of pick-axes and canaries, but mining is still hard, dirty work. Yet it pays well, an average of almost $90,000, much higher than the county average.
Tom Mills, who has been working in Cumberland Mine in Greene County for five years, said he sees new regulations as a threat.
“No matter what you always worry about your job,” Mills said. “You need to be mining coal to get paid. And if they shut these power plants down, these coal-fired power plants, what are they going to use the coal for?”
Like many in the industry, Mills said the future of energy lies in cleaner-burning coal, not in renewable sources.
“Instead of the Sierra Club donating money to shut these places down, maybe they should have donated those millions of dollars to technology to make them burn cleaner,” Mills said.
Mills is not the only one feeling threatened. Billboards touting the reliability and affordability of coal over renewables pepper the highway in southwestern Pennsylvania, paid for by a group called “Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy.”
New energy sources in coal’s backyard
A more visible cause for worry now dots the Pennsylvania countryside: natural gas wells. New hotels are being built to accommodate out-of-town Marcellus Shale drillers in Greene County; restaurants are packed. Miner Chuck Knisell sees the drillers' lack of regulation as unfair.
"How could you put so much pressure on coal and want to do away from burning the coal, but yet you allow these people to come in here ... and rape pillage our land and just leave?" Knisell said. "It just doesn't seem like we're on a level playing field."
Coal still generated 46 percent of the nation's electricity this winter, but that was the lowest first-quarter level in more than 30 years. The decrease was largely due to low natural gas prices.
Jimmy Brock, chief operating officer for coal for Consol Energy, which owns Bailey mine and also has natural gas operations, said natural gas and new regulations could cut into the market for coal. But if demand drops domestically, he said he is confident the international markets will make up the difference.
“I am not worried for the future of the coal,” Brock said. “I believe coal’s here today, I believe it’ll be here tomorrow, and I believe it’ll be here for many years to come.”
Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder put it differently. Although she said a serious blow to the coal industry would cripple her county’s economy, “nobody’s pushing panic buttons yet.”
With U.S. demand for electricity expected to grow by about a third in the next quarter century, the industry says King Coal is here to stay.
This report is part of a series called Coal at the Crossroads produced in partnership with KQED in California. Is America starting to turn against coal the way it slowly turned against tobacco? Find out with four different reports.