Coal mining crews work near the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker in Mahanoy City, Pa. on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. The old breaker is about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia in a region that holds nearly all of the nation’s anthracite, a pure grade of coal that spawned the railroads, powered America’s Industrial Revolution and dominated home heating in the East. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
This Associated Press story about the last coal breaker coming down in Pennsylvania got me thinking about the long tradition — both proud and not so proud — of the region’s coal industry, especially as the forecasts continue to show coal’s inevitable decline. And what do you know, Politico has a piece called, “How coal disrupted the world,” by Barbara Freese, author of the great book, “Coal: A Human History“:
Matthew Boulton was the Steve Jobs of 18th– century England — a visionary entrepreneur with a love of technology and flair for drama. When asked by King George III what he was working on, Boulton announced he was producing “a commodity which is the desire of kings.” Namely, “power, your majesty.”
It was a grandiose promise, but he delivered. Boulton’s business partner was James Watt, whose new steam engine would soon drive the Industrial Revolution. It was a breakthrough that gave humanity a way to efficiently convert the concentrated energy of coal into useful mechanical power. And even before its impact was felt, Boulton had perceived that this new engine would be more than a technology – that there is a link between coal and kings, between the physical power a society taps into and the political power it ultimately supports.
This undated photo provided by Reading Anthracite on April 29, 2015 shows the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker in Mahanoy City, Pa. In the early 20th century, St. Nicholas opened as the crown jewel of a relatively safer, more modern anthracite industry. The breaker and its twin at Locus Summit operated around the clock to meet the nation’s dwindling but still substantial need for anthracite. (Reading Anthracite via AP)
Coal-fired industrialization would go on to create kings of its own, in industry and in politics. Today, the economic outlook for coal is bleak, in part because of the urgent need to rein in its destabilizing effect on the climate. More than two centuries after Boulton’s promise, coal may finally be exiting the economic stage, making room for a new generation of energy technologies.
What will be the social and political implications of coal’s fall? Two of coal’s intrinsic features, its concentrated form and its highly polluting nature, were especially significant in shaping the power dynamics of the coal era. We are starting to replace coal with technologies that are just the opposite — intrinsically dispersed, and environmentally much cleaner. If we keep moving in this direction, the consequences will be particularly profound. Coal’s retreat promises to reshape the world again, and as we start to consider what that will mean, we can find clues in the history of coal’s rise.
The piece continues, with some sharp analysis of the current situation we find ourselves in:
The coal industry blames its current woes on what it calls President Obama’s “war on coal,” but coal’s problems run much deeper. Climate change isn’t going away, and as carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures keep rising, so too will the pressure to move away from coal, which emits much more carbon per unit of energy than other fuels. Even with our reduced dependence on coal, the nation’s coal plants still emit more carbon than all its cars, trucks and buses combined.
It’s possible that a Republican in the White House could reverse some of the regulation that is making coal less competitive, but in the long run coal is unlikely to see anything more than a long, managed decline in its national importance.
So what will be the social and political implications of coal’s decline? Obviously, it will mean less influence for the coal industry and job losses in mining regions, continuing a decades-long trend in some places as the industry has mechanized. The economic hardship that coal communities face is real. It can be reduced through planning, diversifying local economies and retraining workers, but there are no easy solutions. Coal is not the major employer it once was; in Kentucky, for example, less than 1 percent of the state’s workforce is employed by the mines, but that is small consolation to those facing job losses.
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