Creation Care—- and Clean Coal???

Don’t you just hate it when you get lied to by advertisers?  Shouldn’t there be a law that says that if statements are demonstrably false, they should not be able to be put in a TV commercial.   If only it were the way things worked.

I live in a coal state, a state which depends on the coal industry for a lot of its blue collar jobs.   And yet the coal industry knows perfectly well that it has a major PR problem.  The pay for coal workers in eastern Kentucky is generally speaking pathetic, especially when you discover the level of profit taking of the owners of the coal mines.   And the job is enormously difficult and dangerous.   Besides that, its a hazard to one’s health—- if you have ever run into someone with black lung disease or emphysema caused by working in a coal mine, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Then there is the untold ripping off of the employees of the coal industry. When I was working in the mountains of N.C. one time as a VISTA aide, I ran into a man who worked in a strip mine.  He had to borrow the tools he used to have a paying job, borrow them from his employer.  And one day when he left the tools on a coal cart during lunch break and they were stolen, it was he who had to pay for this,  with his meager pay check being garnished.   This was a disaster because the man had more than a few children.

And what about the level of safety in coal mines these days— is it much better than in the past?   I’ll let you look up the number and scope of coal mining disasters in this country in the last ten years and you can draw your own conclusions.  Such are the trials and tribulations of those who mine coal in the South and elsewhere.  Cue Sting’s song ‘They Mine the Black Seam’.

But what has really frosted my cake lately about this dirty business, is that the coal industry continues to advertise ‘clean coal’  indeed they even have a propaganda site to promote how they are doing things cleaner and neater these days.   WORD UP.  This is a straight up deception.  There is no such thing as clean coal. If you bother to do the research you will discover that while hypothetically there is technology that could produce ‘cleaner coal’,  in fact there is not a single plant or coal company in the country producing real clean coal today.  Not a single one. We have been snookered, so that the coal industry can continue to do what it has always done,  make a profit out of one the dirtiest forms of energy in the world.   My wife the environmental scientist and biologist regularly has Mallox moments whenever she sees coal ads on TV.

If this were not enough, there is the powerful coal lobby in Washington  (check out the many ads and politicians who have been paid off so they will merrily claim they are ‘friends of coal’ and urge us to be ‘friends of coal’ as well).   This past week,  while we were in debt ceiling  and debt reduction gridlock and somebody figured we would not notice,  “coal’s friends’ in the House of Representatives were busily trying to gut the environmental laws so that they could go back to mountain top removal, as a means of getting at that coal!

Have you ever been in an airplane and seen the ecological devastation from mountain top removal?  I have.  It”s really unbelievable this could be legal, and the worst part of all this is that is that it is totally unnecessary. There are much more efficient and better ways to get at the coal without devastating the forests and tops of mountains.    And frankly it is also not true that such a practice ‘creates many jobs’.   Wrong,  mountain top removal is basically done by dynamite and machines, not by manual labor.   I doubt it creates many new jobs at all.  One of my new favorite bumper stickers reads—- “Naked Mountain Tops are Obscene”.   Right on brother.

If all the millions that have been spent on lobbying and advertising for the coal industry had actually been spent on developing alternative energy sources, we would all be better off.    And our air would be cleaner as well.  But there are some people determined to make sure that we do not develop alternative energy sources until we have burned every bit of fossil fuel we could possibly dig up or pump out of the ground.  How short sighted.   It is also a strategy which will prevent us from leading the world forward when it comes to energy.

The coup d’ grace for me however was when the University of Kentucky here in Lexington quite happily took millions from the coal industry to build a new dwelling place for our pampered athletes known as the Wildcats on the condition that the building have a name that advertised it was a building built by the coal industry!  Sad and pathetic.

Why do I care about all this?    Simply because I am a Christian who believes that we have a responsibility to care for this beautiful world that God has bequeathed us.   Human beings are about the only creatures who foul their own nests, and coal helps us keep doing it.    Creation care is part of the task of being ‘tenders of the earth’, part of the originally mandate, the original creation order plan  of God.     So, the bottom line is—- no more lies,  no more deceptions about the fossil fuel known as coal.     The next ad I want to see from the coal industry in Kentucky, doing more than lip service to the necessity of truth in advertising would go like this—-

” Coal– its bad for the air, bad for your lungs, bad for our employees, bad for our forests, bad for the climate, and its black as Hades, but heck, it burns doesn’t it and we need it to make money.  Sure it’s a dirty job but we believe someone has to do it.   Remember, if you get lumps of coal in your Christmas stocking, its a punishment for bad behavior,  not a reward.  This has been a public service announcement.”

  • Cynthia

    Thank you for your perspective from a coal producing state. Always great to read your insights.

  • mike

    Thank you. I live in a state just north of you that is now advertising natural gas as a commodity that will create “sustainable jobs.” At least for the next few years. Again, if the resources being spent on keeping fossil fuels at the fore of energy production were spent on r&d for alternative sources…..

  • Andrew

    I was watching American Mobster Classics on AMC last week and the business tactics of this corporation resembles those of the Corleone family. Especially, the lobbyists! Tom Hagans, all of em!

  • Holly

    My husband works in the coal industry. I believe that the conditions you are referring to are quite a bit in the past.

    They pay well, have great benefits, etc. It is a very safe industry, really, when you use real (as opposed to cooked) numbers. They are quite regulated by laws and rules and safety measures.

    I read the literature from both sides. Locally, our representatives in Washington (on behalf of coal) are intelligent, well-educated people with a well-rounded perspective.

    The truth is, there have been major improvements in how coal is mined, and also in safety measures both for the workers and for the environment. Much of the legislative fight today focuses on what to do with the coal ash. The industry argues that it can safely be recycled into concrete, etc., while the environmentalist side says that it has to be disposed of, safely, (kinda like nuclear waste) to the tune of monstrous amounts of money.

    There is plenty of coal here. Where my husband works, you can’t even tell that there is a mine.

    You mentioned the devastation that occurs when a mountain top is razed to get to coal. Yes, it is awful looking. I remember being a young girl and being SO MAD at the industries who bulldozed the tops of the hills near our forest home.

    And yet, I didn’t have the perspective of time. I could not look ahead and see that within 20 years the top of those hills would look beautiful again, that the companies replant and wildlife comes back, and that in reality, it was a very small portion of the whole.

    Truth is, some of the same forest (as I mentioned above) is now so regulated that it is dying. Forests need to be cleared or even burned every so often in order for new life to spring up. I know that sounds odd, but it is true. That’s the only was some of the new seeds spring up and new trees are allowed to grow. Otherwise, we see overgrowth and dead trees choking out new growth, and eventually, the forest dies or becomes overgrown by “foreign” species.

    I guess what I really want to say is to stop and take a deep breath. We all need to do that – to try to read and understand the full picture, not get out of balance and prone to hysteria or hyperbole. We’ve got plenty of that to go around these days. I feel your thoughts regarding coal and the supposed effects are completely out of balance.

  • Edward Fudge

    Ben — God bless you for having the insight to form these convictions and for having the courage to express them! God placed humans over the rest of creation “to protect it wisely and to use it well” (as I put it in The Divine Rescue) — and the practices you describe betray both aspects of that assignment. – Edward

  • Holly

    Two more things:

    1) The lies and deception are not only on the side of coal. There is evidence that some of the more radical environmentalist groups also use deception to achieve their goals. There is plenty of falsified data. There are unintended consequences, too, when we don’t fairly represent both sides of an argument. One that comes to mind regards the growing of organic cotton in third world countries (to make organic clothes for the American market.) There are no pesticides used – but unfortunately, the poor families who work on the organic cotton farm suffer dreadfully from insect borne illnesses. Yes, they have work and that is good – but their children die due to preventable diseases. How horrible. We think we are doing a good thing by planting/using organic ( a foundational environmental platform) and yet, the consequences are horrible. Do we hear these numbers, often? Nope. (And for what it is worth, I am a Christian and I believe in Creation Care and sustainability and I love this world God created, too and I would say that I am a reasoned environmentalist. I’m simply saying we have to be careful to represent both sides.

    2) I do believe that those of us who are so angry against coal need to seriously consider how we are part of the problem. Do you use the benefits of coal? If you hate it soooo much and it stirs such angry passion, then you should completely NOT use it. No air conditioning, no plastic, no cars, no teaching classes in schools which use electricity, no writing or publishing books via processes that use electricity, etc. That means we go back to carving our own bowls, weaving our own clothing, writing on scrolls, no internet, etc.

    “Yes” to better and more sustainable, renewable energy – “No” to over-the-top rhetoric that harms rather than helps.

  • Oscar

    There is NO SUCH THING as producing energy without cost to the environment!

    Windmills kill birds, are inadequate for meaningful supply and take up valuable space.

    Solar panels use even MORE land and require LOTS of water to keep them clean enough to produce any meaningful supply. PLUS their lifetime is short and they require special handling to recycle.

    Geothermal is just a pipe dream! It requires hazardous chemicals to produce the energy and it is only feasible in very few areas.

    Nuclear power? Have you read the newspapers lately?

    Fossil fuel, i.e. coal, oil, natural gas, are the most economical resources for producing energy AND are still plentiful WITHIN OUR OWN BORDERS!

    As for “clean coal”, I haven’t heard of anyone “producing” it but, rather the term indicates a way that it can be UTILIZED in a cleaner manner.

    Let’s face facts Ben, unless you want to go back to the days of Hugh Corbett, fossil fuels are here to stay, at least for the next few generations. True, we can reduce our uses of them by developing other sources of energy along side coal, natural gas and oil, but working ourselves into high dudgeon instead of reasoned discussion is not only wasted personal energy, it is also counter productive.

    Getting on a “high horse” may feel good, or make us feel “righteous” when we “expose” the abuses of “big business”, and that’s fine with me, but few really respect those who take that stance (see: Al Gore).

    I still highly respect you as an academic, biblical scholar and social commentator, but as an environmentalist who uses Christianity as a fulcrum, not so much.

  • bw

    dr. witherington,

    i greatly appreciate your passion for the just treatment of people and for creation care. the latter is a growing edge for me, and i appreciate the nudge.

    but i do have to agree with holly and oscar on this one. we need to learn to burn coal and other fossil fuels (notably natural gas) as cleanly as possible, but at least they are economically-viable, real world energy solutions. can’t say the same for the favored ‘green’ alternatives, and that’s significant. in wealthy countries, it would simply mean spending resources we could use elsewhere on energy production — or a lower standard of living. among the very poor, expensive energy is a disaster. for instance, it leads to higher food prices for those who can least afford it.

    the conversation about energy and the environment is one chritians need to have. but it doesn’t help to get snarky and one-sided.

  • ben witherington

    I am sorry but there is nothing to say in favor of lets burn more fossil fuels. Oscar frankly I am surprised at you. Comparing the damage done to the environment by burning coal to washing solar panels is a joke. A sad joke too. Natural gas is frankly dangerous, and so is nuclear. No one mentioned hydro-electric power as a cleaner source of energy, but we need more of it, not less. Of course it is true that there are environmental extremists, but this does not let anyone off the hook for working for a cleaner environment. Coal is not a part of the solution frankly. And here is the saddest part. We do and did have the technology to have cars that run on electric power and steam, etc, and we have had it since the 1950s. Would you like to know what happened to most of the patents etc.— they were bought up by the car industry and oil industry and buried. Not developed but buried. Did you ever wonder how it was that suddenly when we had a crisis, the car industry was able over night to produce hybrid vehicles? It’s because they had the know how and technology for decades! It is a sad and telling story of graft, greed, and corruption.


  • Kyle

    But hydroelectric power requires dams that damage rivers and the environment, too! Every energy source has its drawbacks and there is no perfect solution outside of science fiction. I like the idea of having a cleaner energy source than coal but it has to become economically feasible first – if it’s not profitable it won’t work, and that takes time. It’s easy to stand one one’s soapbox and demonize those environment-hating, cigar-chomping corporations, but hard to actually come up with effective alternatives.

    Conspiracy theories about big business deliberately keeping their cars and energy sources in the past are hard to swallow without evidence, and I have a very hard time believing that car companies wouldn’t want to offer the most high-tech, cutting-edge cars they could to consumers to stay ahead of the competition. Last time I checked, auto manufacturers competed with each other. Very different from colluding together in smoke-filled rooms like in an X-Files episode.

    I live in northern Japan, and most people are not freaking out of their minds from the nuclear incident. Most of the tension comes fro distrust of the domestic media, which has shot itself in the foot by coming across as secretive after the disaster. I can safely say that well-intentioned but ultimately deluded people wanting to immediately shut down all nuclear power plants in Japan can’t see that the consequences of their actions would be a country without electricity. It is quite remarkable how quickly nuclear energy has become demonized when:

    A.) It’s had a terrific safety record outside incompetent Soviets up until now;
    B.) Nobody died from the Fukushima reactor boogeyman, whereas the tsunami that killed ten thousand people quickly took a backseat;
    C.) It took an unprecedented natural disaster – NOT an everyday event, and not human incompetence – to damage a nuclear reactor in Japan.

    It does not seem like a stretch to say that most critics of nuclear, coal, and other energy sources are motivated by their own self-righteousness rather than workable solutions.

  • Thorn

    As long as oil, coal, and natural gas companies have a disproportionate amount of influence on federal and state governments, nothing is going to change. You only need to look at the hit-job this industry has done to the solid science of global warming for confirmation…>90% of climate scientist agree with AGW, but nearly half of the public thinks the science is still being debated. In the end, nothing gets done. As long as the public remains ignorant, there is no incentive for politicians to hold these industries more accountable.

  • Oscar

    Ben, I have a hard time believing you misread my post.

    You said “Oscar frankly I am surprised at you. Comparing the damage done to the environment by burning coal to washing solar panels is a joke. A sad joke too. Natural gas is frankly dangerous, and so is nuclear. ”

    I didn’t COMPARE the damage other resources cause, I POINTED OUT that NO energy source is without problems. And when it comes to efficiency versus cost nothing compares to fossil fuels.

    Our whole world economy is flooded with the products of fossil fuels! In fact, as Holly pointed out, and as I inferred, doing without their benefit would set us back 200 years. That’s not to say we should still go full out with oil and coal because it is in our best interests to use as many different sources as possible.

    And your comment about automobiles was just a red herring. Sure there were other patents, but that discussion is just a diversion from the real subject at hand, and THAT is your comments about coal.

    A more reasoned discussion is a MUST if we are to find a solution. Unfortunately it is easier to cast the other side as devils in order to convince others of our “righteous” environmental cause.

    Again, I appreciate your passion and I respect you for voicing it, even if I DO think it is too shrill.

  • Mike Taylor

    I work in this industry, know lots of people across the country who work in this industry, and am in power plants and coal mines on a very regular basis. If you’re going to make the arguement, at least gather the current data on jobs, pay, etc. You are really out of date on the job situation. And put the environmental data in perspective. For example, did you know that US power plants emit 41 – 48 tons of mercury per year? China emits ten times that. Sounds scary. “Lions and tigers, oh my!” Except, volcanoes emit 9,000 – 10,000 tons per year and there’s 200 million tons always present in sea water. All human emissions combined are small compared to these numbers. Context, context, context. You seem to have a penchant for strong opinions and stong feelings. “Feelings” may be a fine song (or not) but feelings too readily distort judgement when searching for objective truth.

  • steve

    Plutonomy is becoming more and more powerful. Especially as a result of the Supreme Court giving corporations free speech rights to feed campaign coffers. Hang on little people we are going for a nasty ride . . .

  • Scott

    Kyle wrote: Conspiracy theories about big business deliberately keeping their cars and energy sources in the past are hard to swallow without evidence, and I have a very hard time believing that car companies wouldn’t want to offer the most high-tech, cutting-edge cars they could to consumers to stay ahead of the competition. Last time I checked, auto manufacturers competed with each other. Very different from colluding together in smoke-filled rooms like in an X-Files episode.

    I recall back in the mid-80s being in seminary and one of the profs told us about his neighbor, a ‘big wheel’ in the car industry (no pun intended) who retired and got a car as a present. According to the prof, the guy drove this car around and began to realize that he was not needing to refuel — the gas gauge wasn’t going down as quickly as he thought it should. It wasn’t long before someone from the company came by and took back that car and replaced it with another identical one. My prof’s neighbor was told that the car he was given accidentally was an experimental model not intended to be used on the road ! As nearly as the retired exec could figure, he was getting around 75 mpg with that vehicle ! So…. where are they hiding in ??

  • mike

    I guess the issue rests with the gov’t. and industry being more concerned with profits over progress. Can’t fault that…it’s the American way to exploit anything and everything to worship the image of a guy named George.
    Regardless of the environmental concerns, fossil fuels simply will not last. To continue to push these as the best and most economical is expedient, but woefully short-sighted. More should be done to explore and develop whatever sustainable fuel sources.

  • Brian

    If the automobile industry had advanced innovation at the same rate as the computer industry has, since their respective inceptions, cars would be running on solar power and be able to store a week’s worth of charge in a few hours of time. Watch the movie “Tucker” and realize what the big 3 did…they did buy up eachother, squelch out competition, buy patents, invented planned obsolescence, etc. What they did was the opposite of capitalism. They chose corruption over free markets. The energy industry is no different…corruption over true capitalism all the way.

    If markets were allowed to be free, unfettered by the strong hand of beuracrats, and market leaders were men of virtue, we wouldn’t need regulation, labor unions, etc. Just those 2 small things, and we could get this economy back on track!

  • Bart

    Dr. Witherington wrote: “The pay for coal workers in eastern Kentucky is generally speaking pathetic, especially when you discover the level of profit taking of the owners of the coal mines.”

    I was curious as to what coal miners are paid these days, so I did an Internet search. Ond one of the top hits was an article from USAToday:

    The article states that “….a beginning miner…can expect to start out at $12 or $13 an hour. A miner with…six months and 108 shifts under his belt, may jump to $16 an hour. Foremen, electricians and other specialists earn more. The average West Virginia miner made about $64,000 last year, according to Workforce West Virginia, part of the state’s commerce department. That’s more than twice the $31,000 average income for all industries in the state.”

    That was five years ago, it was in West Virginia instead of Kentucky, and the figures pertain to deep mining rather than strip mining, which Dr. Witherington references in his blog. Still $64k per year is not bad, even for hazardous work, especially if most of the alternatives pay half that amount. A miner making $64k can afford to send his children to expensive colleges like UNC, while the children of those making $31k might have to settle for online “universities.”

  • Richard Johnson

    @Brian #17: “…and market leaders were men of virtue,…”

    And there you have the primary reason that capitalism will *always* eventually lead to oligarchy. The fallen nature of humankind insures that greed, selfishness, and conniving will eventually enter into the fray. We see it in the current system, inadequately regulated as it is. I shudder to think of how a totally unregulated system would function.

    Face it…the sin nature of humans makes an unregulated capitalistic market an impossibility.

  • Pro Forma

    Re 19 Richard Johnson “the sin nature of humans makes an unregulated capitalistic market an impossibility”… so what is your point?
    I hope you are not naive enough to belive we have an “unregulated capitalist market” — a look at US tax codes, regulatory agencies, administrative rules, etc is clear evidence the American economy is very regulated.
    And I hope you are not naive enough to desire an economy without capitalism. The evidence of poverty producing, soul destroying communism is overwhelming…and since non-capitalist economie don’t produce much wealth, there isn’t very much to take for social justice.
    The goal of any decent political system is to have a government with enough power to get things done, and enough limits on power to prevent it from tyranny.
    Hmmm, seems like this was masterfully explained in Federalist Number 51.
    So, again, what is you point?