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We'll Take the Money and Run

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I can’t help but wonder what Steve Mufson over at the Washington Post has been smoking. Somehow or another, he seems to think that the overpowering and financially secure Big Coal interests in the nation are on the run. Those intrepid environmentalists finally have their number, according to Steve.
The mayor of Missoula, Mont., is the latest person to discover just how unpopular coal plants have become.

In early August, Mayor John Engen (D) won city council support to buy electricity from a new coal-fired plant scheduled to begin operation in 2011. He said the city government would save money on its electric bills.

But three weeks later, Engen pulled out of the deal after receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from constituents upset that Missoula would contribute to the creation of a coal plant and concerned about what the town would do if the plant never got built.

"Coal is a double-edged sword," Engen said. "I sort of felt both edges."

A year after the nation appeared to be in the middle of a coal rush, widening alarm about greenhouse gas emissions has slowed the efforts of electric companies to build coal-fired power plants from hills of eastern Montana to southern Florida.

The business community seems to be in an unusually paranoid period, ushered in by the razor-thin Democrat majority in Congress and assault after assault on the normally Republican grazing-grounds of big business. Wall Street has temporarily lost its head, a record number of CEOs are in (or awaiting) jail and the lid is jiggling on an already boiling Iraq war contracts scandal.

Interesting times for those who attended Dick Cheney’s energy policy meetings. It's an old Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times."

Recently, proponents of coal-fired power plants acquired a new foe: Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. In late July, Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to the chief executives of four power companies in which he vowed to "use every means at my disposal" to stop their plans to build three coal-fired plants in Nevada. Last month, after a speech in Reno, Reid said he was opposed to new coal-fired plants anywhere.

"There's not a coal-fired plant in America that's clean. They're all dirty," Reid told reporters after speaking at a conference on renewable energy. He said that the United States should turn to wind, solar and geothermal power in an effort to slow climate change. "Unless we do something quickly about global warming, we're in trouble," he said.

Of course every means at his disposal hasn’t counted for much lately in Harry’s office, but he is certainly correct. This is the Senate majority leader who’s been so p*ssy-whipped by Nancy Pelosi that he has to check in over at the House before he slips out for a beer. I guess if we really want to know if all this environmental verbiage is for real, we’ll check with her.

Harry Reid certainly hasn’t shaken Robert Murray over at Murray Energy. Harry grew up a miner’s son, but ol' Bob moves back and forth from burying dead miners in Utah to buying tapped-out mining properties with an alacrity that belies his age and belly.

Don’t talk to me about old men—Bob is a belier of the belly in real time and has the greed and avarice to go along with the pot. Murray owns and runs 19 mines in five states—all of them badly, all of them in violation of safety rules, all of them with stacks of unpaid citations.

When you don’t want to spend money mining safely, you either 'retreat mine' or simply blow off the covering soil and push away overburden. Retreat mining cost nine lives in one of Murray's mines in Utah. In that process, you pull down the walls and pillars of coal that support the mine shaft, ‘retreating’ as you go, hoping the whole damned mountain doesn’t come down on your (employees) head, which is what happened at Crandall Canyon Mine.

Responsible mine operators won’t touch retreat mining—too dangerous. So, they sell their mines to guys like Murray, who aren’t so squeamish.

Others merely blow the tops off mountains to provide cheap and easy access to coal seams. The mountaintops have to go somewhere after being blown up, so they either fall into or are bulldozed into West Virgina’s pristine valleys. Or formerly pristine. Or once-upon-a-time pristine. The coal guys have thus far blown 500 West Virginia mountaintops into valleys, choking streams, polluting groundwater and ruining entire eco-systems.

Forever. The damage is forever. It’s a race between Harry Reid and what mountains are left.

Unfortunately, West Virginia miners support this kind of mining, because they’ve been miners for generations and don’t know anything else. What’s a guy with dirt under his nails and coal dust in his lungs to do, open a bed-and-breakfast?

Well, he might if he gives a damn about his grandkids. Mining this way is like ripping the roof off the house to bring in the groceries. There are 40,000 jobs in mining and WV exports 50 million tons of coal to 23 foreign countries. So, it’s not all about energy independence in the United States.
(West Virginia Tourism) Boasting many areas (although fewer every year) of extraordinary natural beauty, West Virginia has become a haven for travelers seeking (a dynamite) outdoor adventure along with abundant wildlife and unparalleled views! 

The state also has it's share of metropolitan attractions, such as fine dining, extensive shopping, historical museums, and excellent theater.

Whether you're up camping near the summit of Spruce Knob (while it’s still there) or down in the heart of Charleston, the capital city, West Virginia provides a spectacular backdrop for every type of vacation fun. (parentheticals are mine)

A third smaller than Ireland and every bit as lovely, West Virginia is at the same time selling itself and blowing itself down the river. Ireland, twenty years ago an agriculture-based backwater, currently has the second highest per capita income of any country in the Europe, next to Luxembourg. Ireland rates fourth highest in the world based on measurements of Gross Domestic Product per capita.

In 2005, the World Bank measured Ireland's Gross National Income per head at $41,140, the seventh highest in the world, sixth highest in Western Europe, and the third highest of any EU member state. That’s a hell of a long way from the potato famines of 160 years ago. Understanding that West Virginians don’t have 160 years to wait, it’s relevant to know that prosperity arrived on Irish soil within the past twenty years.

Coal is not important to West Virginia.

Coal will be gone in a hundred years and so will every nook and cranny of natural beauty within the state. In a world where isolated areas of great natural attraction are becoming more and more rare, a world hungry for technical expertise, a world thirsting for tourist destinations, West Virginia can hardly afford its carpet-bagging mine owners who strip the coal and get out of town.

You West Virginians keep the black lung and wrecked economy—we’ll take the money and run.
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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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