Coal and The Conservatives


Coal; responsible for ~30% of US power generation, has long been a darling of conservative politicians and receives massive support via both policy and financial subsidies. This is despite ample evidence of coal’s harmful effects on the environment, human health and its detrimental contributions to global warming. Policy decisions ranging from the 1980’s Bevill Amendment which impacted the way in which the toxic residue of burned coal must be stored to the recent decision by the Trump administration to prop up coal fired power plants by declaring their closing a national security risk; politician have openly supported the industry. In the following paper we will look at the impact coal has on the environment and humanity at large, the nature of the policies put in place to protect it and attempt to understand why the industry has been supported in the face of cleaner, cheaper alternatives.

Coal, the fossilized remains of prehistoric vegetation is a highly combustible carbon-based substance that is burned in power plants. ‘Coal-fired plants produce electricity by burning coal in a boiler to produce steam. The steam produced, under tremendous pressure, flows into a turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity. The steam is then cooled, condensed back into water and returned to the boiler to start the process over. (Tennessee Valley Authority. “How a Coal Plant Works)”’ When it is burned, coal produces many harmful toxins, and coal fired power plants are responsible for forty-two percent of US Mercury emissions, and in 2014, coal plants produced ‘41.2 tons of lead, 9,332 pounds of cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals, 576,185 tons of carbon monoxide, which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease, and 77,108 pounds of arsenic. For scale, arsenic causes cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion’ (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017).

Each year, nearly 100 million tons of coal ash, the residual matter left over from burned coal is produced. Coal ash contains concentrated heavy metals, with the EPA estimating that those that live near coal ash storage ponds ‘have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic, one of the most common, and most dangerous, pollutants from coal ash. That same risk assessment says that living near ash ponds increases the risk of damage to the liver, kidney, lungs and other organs as a result of being exposed to toxic metals like cadmium, cobalt, lead, and other pollutants at concentrations far above levels that are considered safe’ (Earth Justice, 7 May 2009).

Coal produces the most carbon dioxide amongst all sources of electricity generation, producing between 214 and 228 pounds of C2 per million British thermal units (BTU) of energy produced. For comparison, Diesel produces 161.3 pounds and natural gas produces 117. Renewables such as solar and wind do not produce CO2. Carbon Dioxide is the primary driver of global warming as it is the most abundantly produced heat trapping gas and it remains in the atmosphere for far longer than other gasses produced by mankind, ‘with 40% remaining in the atmosphere for 100 years and 20% … for 1000 years, while the final 10% will take 10,000 years to turn over.’ (Union of Concerned Scientists, August 3, 2017).

Why with all of these environmental and human health risks does coal remain such a popular choice for energy production and why does it continue to receive political support? Coal receives a number of direct and indirect subsidies from both state level and the federal government, including low cost leasing of federal lands for coal mining, favorable tax accounting methods, and recently President Trump was considering utilizing national security laws to prevent the closing of existing coal burning plants. The original reason for the plants closings was simple economics, coal is more expensive to use than natural gas or even wind power.

During his campaign, Trump touted the return of coal jobs despite the decline of coal being directly related to capitalism, the system championed by him and his party. Jobs in coal have not returned though and likely won’t due to simple economic drivers. Coal is now more expensive per Kilowatt hour than its competitors, costing on the low end an average of 6 cents per kWh versus 4.2 cents for natural gas. (The Motley Fool, 19 Nov. 2017). Interestingly, coal does not employ a large number of people relative to other industries, with an estimated total employment of ~76, 572 including not just miners and plant workers but office workers and sales associates. For comparison, the fast food restaurant Arby’s employs ~80,000 people. (Christopher Ingraham, March 31, 2017). Wind energy employs ~ 107,000 people and solar employed 350,000 individuals.

Why then, with relatively low total employment numbers do coal jobs receive so much political attention? Coal mining is very much a regional industry with the largest contributors being Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky; with third ranked Kentucky producing 26% more coal than fourth place Pennsylvania. These three states are historically republican leaning and as such, the support of coal mining by the republican party on the national stage goes a long way towards ensuring this political support continues. A large part of this can be contributed to the United States system of government and the method in which states receive representation in Congress. In the Senate, arguably the most powerful of the two branches of congress, each state receives 2 representatives regardless of population size. This process grants equal power to states such as Wyoming with a population of just ~573,000, and West Virginia with ~1, 803, 000 as it does to much larger states such as Texas with ~28 million residents and California with ~39,776,000 (World Population Review). These smaller states wield influence disproportionate to their population sizes and as such are very important to a political party’s overall power.

By supporting coal over cleaner and cheaper fuel sources, the republican party can ensure a solid and loyal voting majority in these regions. The republican controlled senate just approved a former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler as the head of the EPA, the organization in charge of regulating the coal industry. The coal industry also contributes significantly to senate candidates via campaign contributions with 14 of the top 20 recipients being republicans. One interesting deviation from this trend was Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia; a major coal producing state, receiving the second highest amount of contributions in 2018 (Open Secrets, 2018).

The coal industry, a large-scale polluter enjoys surprisingly lax enforcement rules which contribute towards its continued viability. As mention earlier, coal fired power generation produces an average of 100 million tons of toxic coal ash on an annual basis. The environmental protection agency is in charge of determining the applicable laws in regard to the storage of hazardous waste. A federal program to manage hazardous waste was initially established in 1976 by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under this program, waste determined to be hazardous was to be handled under Subtitle C of the act and had to follow strict handling requirements govern every phase of waste management, from its generation to its final disposition and beyond (“cradle to grave”). The stringent Subtitle C standards apply only to waste identified as “hazardous” according to regulatory criteria established by EPA. In 1980, an amendment title the Bevill Amendment after its sponsor, Republican Representative Thomas Bevill granted exclusions for specific large volume industrial waste including ‘ — fly ash waste, bottom ash waste, slag waste, and flue gas emission control waste generated primarily from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels; solid waste from the extraction, beneficiation, and processing of ores and minerals, including phosphate rock and overburden from the mining of uranium ore; and cement kiln dust’ (Luther , Linda. Congressional Research Service, 6 Aug. 2013). This amendment while initially passed as a temporary extension to allow the EPA to continue to investigate the toxicity of coal ash has essentially been the EPA’ issued regulatory determinations for each type of waste between 1988 and 2002. With limited exceptions, the agency determined that regulation under Subtitle C was not warranted. EPA noted that the exclusion is not equivalent to determining the waste is nonhazardous.’ Instead of being regulated under the strict Subtitle C regulations, coal ash has been regulated under Subtitle D, the same section that regulates common solid waste such as garbage. This has led to coal ash being stored in large coal ash ponds, many of which have no lining allowing heavy metals to leach into local water supplies.

In July 2018, the EPA under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist passed additional rulings including extending the life of some existing ash ponds from April 2019 until October 2020, empowering states to suspend groundwater monitoring in certain cases and allowing state officials to certify whether utilities’ facilities meet adequate standards. EPA officials estimate that the rule change will save the industry between $28 million and $31 million a year in compliance costs … Wheeler worked for several years as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, which supported reconsideration of the coal ash rule, before joining the administration this spring. He said in an interview with The Washington Post this month that he has not lobbied EPA directly for several years, though he lobbied other government departments since President Trump took office.’ (Eilperin, Juliet, and Brady Dennis, July 2018).

Numerous studies have shown that poor and minority communities are disproportionately affected by harmful pollution. Whether as a result of successful ‘Not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) movements or simple political intent, harmful waste is often stored close to minority communities and as such they bear the brunt of the negative effects. In 2008, more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash spilled from a containment pond in Kingston, Tenn., much of the escaped waste was relocated to Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, a mostly black community in central Alabama. In March of 2018, the EPA dismissed a civil rights case brought by the residents of Uniontown, ‘In a 28-page letter, the EPA said there was “insufficient evidence” that authorities in Alabama had breached the Civil Rights Act by allowing an enormous landfill site containing 4m tons of coal ash to operate near residents in Uniontown. A separate claim that the landfill operator retaliated against disgruntled residents was also turned down.’ (Oliver Milman, March, 6, 2018). The environmental Defense Fund has found that more than 1.5 million people of color live near the coal ash storage pits of the more than 277 coal fired power plants throughout the country.

Many conservative politicians openly reject climate change science with Donald Trump recently stating that global warming was a fabrication invented by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive. A recent paper found ‘little relationship between intelligence and knowledge and beliefs on climate change (or other hot button issues, such as evolution). It is political affiliation — and not knowledge or intelligence — that predicts attitudes concerning climate change. Whereas for those on the left, more knowledge and higher intelligence predicts a higher rate of acceptance of the consensus, for those on the right the opposite is true. Sceptics are not less intelligent or less knowledgeable. Instead, our political biases strongly influence how we process information — and especially what sources we are likely to trust.’ (Michael Fiala, November 28, 2016) This means that political considerations determine the laws and regulations that affect the lives and health of everyone. Short term business and capital gains are given priority over the long-term damage and environmental devastation our current path has set us on.

A congressionally mandated report, the National Climate Assessment was released on November 23, 2018. The report prepared by over 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies predicts widespread economic and environmental devastation caused by man made global climate change. Interestingly the report states that the negative effects of climate change are not in the distant future but are being felt now via the increase in forest fires, drought conditions in the West and increased hurricane intensity. The Trump administration, focused on increasing economic output and relaxing regulations released the report on Black Friday, perhaps hoping to reduce its impact by releasing it on the busiest shopping day of the year. After the reports release, the administration sought to downplay its significance claiming it was based on extreme scenarios and did not account for new technology that could reduce the effects of climate change. Two days before the reports release, the president tweeted “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS — Whatever happened to Global Warming?”.

The current administration appears to have fully embraced climate change denial in the face of conflicting science produced by its own federal agencies. A number of the administration’s appointees are climate change deniers. The secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke stated in 2014 regarding climate change that “it’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either”. Vice president Mike Pence has called global warming a myth several times. Pence has close ties to Koch industries, which has several business interests tied to fossil fuels. He has received over $300,000 in donations from the billionaire Koch brothers and has consistently voted in favor of pro fossil fuel legislation.

The coal industry despite its disproportionately negative affect on the environment and the health of US citizens receives strong political protections due to those same politicians being rational actors primarily concerned with election and reelection as opposed to the health and well being of their constituents. By drafting policy that earns large campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, politicians can continue to campaign for reelection and without term limits, the need for reelection and replenishment of funds is a constant. Politicians have become adept at painting the narrative they want their voting constituents to see such as the need for coal jobs and the potential for their resurgence, neither of which are based on reality. I believe that the reason conservative politicians support the coal and fossil fuel industries in uncomplicated, as long as that support pays dividends in the form of votes and campaign contributions, these industries will continue to enjoy political support, despite the human and environmental consequences.