I’m not a fan of coal or coal mining in general, but I save my real vitriol for mountaintop removal mining. I see it as a virtual crime against humanity, and find it unfathomable that it is legal in the U.S. If you aren’t familiar with this, it’s where companies use explosives to remove the tops of Appalachian ridges and scoop the coal out. It’s cheaper and less labor intensive than underground mining, but the environmental impacts are absolutely catastrophic. A short video that’s worth watching–
(Or, if you have more time—a whole documentary, “The Last Mountain“). The damage done by this type of mining is completely irreversible. In addition to all of the pollution and social costs, no power on earth will ever, in a thousand years, be able to recreate the mountains and valleys that are destroyed by this process. The industry’s attempts at reclamation are laughable; what they leave behind doesn’t resemble any rural terrain, let alone the grandeur of the landscapes they erase. And all coal-burning, whether from mountain-top mines or not, results in tremendous CO2 emissions, roughly double that of natural gas, in addition to other air pollutants (SO2) and ash-disposal problems. It’s just a dirty industry, despite their “Clean Coal” claims.
So my knee-jerk reaction—if you don’t like the coal industry, don’t buy their products. By the same token, if you don’t like Exxon-Mobil, don’t buy their products. If you don’t like it that chickens are raised in tiny cages to lay eggs, don’t buy factory eggs. Etc.
But, as with everything else, things are more complicated than they first appear, and “not buying coal” isn’t always that simple. We live in a carbon economy, and because we have to consume just to survive, we all participate to greater or lesser degrees in coal-burning (and mining), by default.
One source of “coal-burning” for all of us is in the products we buy. My unsupported opinion on this is that the amount of fossil fuels used to create our products is probably quite small compared to what we burn for electricity, climate control, and transportation. Regardless, however, whenever we buy products made from steel, or metals of any kind, those metals were mined and smelted with oil and coal. A related situation—China is almost completely coal-powered, so the purchase of any goods made in China also involve coal consumption (also true for much of the world). The goods we buy were also designed and marketed with fossil fuels, transported with fossil fuels, by employees who got to work in their fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, etc. (And that gasoline they used is mandated in most states to be mixed with ten or fifteen percent ethanol, made with… electricity from coal).
But beyond this, some people are in situations where they are virtually forced to use coal for a huge amount of their daily activities, because they have no other options. For people who live where their grid power is generated by coal, and their power companies don’t offer the option to buy renewable, it is almost impossible for them to avoid. Not only do they consume coal by default, but this situation precludes driving an electric vehicle, (charging an EV with electricity from coal doesn’t result in much if any environmental advantage) which means these people can’t avoid Exxon-Mobil, either. And if they live in a hot climate, where air conditioning is virtually required, these people “burn coal” all day, every day, along with gasoline for their vehicles, becoming veritable paragons of personal fossil fuel consumption. Their only real option might be to install a solar power system, but this won’t work for many people (either they can’t afford the up-front costs, or are renting, or won’t be living in a particular house for an extended period, etc). Even with solar, typical home installations aren’t big enough to fully power an electric vehicle, so they still wouldn’t have a good option to avoid Exxon-Mobil.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum are people who burn coal and don’t have to. For people who have the option to buy renewable power, and don’t, and end up using electricity from coal—this just seems immoral. But the devil is in the details—virtually all these scenarios, in real life, are more grey than black or white. For argument’s sake, let’s assume a person’s electricity is generated not just from coal, but coal from mountaintop mining in Appalachia, and they have no option from their electric company to buy renewable. In this case, is it immoral for them to use their electric clothes dryer, if it’s a sunny day and they could hang their clothes on a clothesline? What if they had the financial capability to install a solar PV system, but just didn’t want to bother? Or, to flip it around, what if a person did have the option to buy renewable electricity, and did so, but then chose not to drive an electric vehicle for no real reason, which kept them in the Exxon-Mobil/coal-produced ethanol loop?
It seems to me that these are indeed moral issues. Not understanding the impacts that result from our actions isn’t much of an excuse, either—the damage is happening whether we take the time to figure it out or not. As such, we should all be mindful of our actions.