I really wanted an opportunity to reduce my carbon footprint by getting rid of my gas stove and going to an induction cooktop. But alas, I live in West Virginia. Here there is no commercial option to replace methane with electricity generated without the aid of fossil fuels. In fact, in this state, we still receive 91% of our electricity from coal – the fuel source with the most possible emissions of carbon dioxide. In this state, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the current age, since we want to segregate ourselves in the past when America was great.
In this state, those companies who wish to insure they have a source of low carbon energy are viewed as radical woke environmentalists, and the legislature has made it extremely difficult to implement alternative energy sources. At the residential level, the state has left in place roadblocks against any form of community solar energy, which is about the only option I would have since our house alignment is not conducive to installing solar panels. See, we love coal in this state, and we will do our best to ensure we use this fuel source until we’ve stripped every minimal vein from under our feet. Yes, strip mining is still a thing, only we use explosives to rip off the tops of ridges in order to gain access to the black gold still in the ground. Putting the surface back into some semblance of the previous terrain? Yes, that is what the law says you should do, but even the most responsible companies kind of punt on this, leaving a slightly rolling surface good for – well, just what is this ground good for, once the top soil has been blasted away leaving behind only rubble. More on this later.
Coal mining is macho. The image in this state of a young, virile male coal miner leaving in the morning with their lunch bucket in hand, off to fulfill some companies plan to provide fuel for power plants. This image is strong and resilient. Why bother getting an education since you will likely be involved in extracting coal from the ground for a living? And make no mistake, it is a good living. It is the only job capable of sustaining a middle-class lifestyle in much of this state. But there is so much to coal mining that is bad. Since the veins of coal are so thin, any method of extracting the coal involves much more exposure to rock dust. Rock dust? Try almost pure silica. Increased exposure to silica is fueling an epidemic of black lung among the same young, virile miners mentioned earlier. Whereas black lung used to affect miners in their 50’s, this new variety is hitting younger miners, often in their 30’s and 40’s.
Black lung is not the only problem. Especially when engaging in mountain top removal, the tailings are pushed over the side of the mountain. Selenium is one of the components in the rock other than silica, and it leaches out of the exposed rocks and is released into the disturbed streams. There it can lead directly to fish kills, or indirectly lead to human disease via rudimentary water services requiring the use of the degraded water. And remember, in order to remove the rocks atop of the coal, explosives are used to blast off the overburden. The dust from these blasts settles down in the area, causing exposure to silica dust even for those who do not benefit from mining jobs. In all, a lousy way to free up a burnable resource.
Of course, we should not worry about the end product of coal combustion. Carbon dioxide is a necessary resource for plants, at least that’s what I read in anti-global warming tracts. But what is not stated (perhaps due to an antipathy towards evolution) is that existing plants are finely tuned to their current environment. Changing two of the components necessary for growth (temperature and carbon dioxide) at the same time is, as the movies have said, Risky Business. Of course, most of those who deny that climate change is real and caused by human emissions hold sway at local political levels. We see that in West Virginia where one of the State Senators with jurisdiction over coal adoration has called renewable energy a “fairy tale”. Well, sir, my education was as a chemical engineer, and in my pursuit of that education I took several semesters of thermodynamics and atmospheric science. For humanity to have the hubris to return much of the carbon sequestered over millions of years into the atmosphere in a geological eye blink and not expect any unanticipated consequences is indeed, folly. I do not care that carbon dioxide is only several hundred parts per million in the atmosphere. Greatly increasing that amount will not cause Eden to break out over all of earth. We will instead see instability of weather patterns (polar vortex invasions in winter), flooding events in summer (warmer air can contain more moisture and the increase is exponential), and an increase in what is considered clear weather flooding due to sea rise.
Earlier I referred to the land made mainly level after reclamation from mountaintop removal. What can such land be used for? Since the topsoil was scattered to the winds, the remaining soil makes a poor candidate for any growing activity. It is well suited, though, for solar farms, since this will not displace productive farmland. Can we adjust to a passive energy source after having depended upon land disruption for so long to feed the coal industrial complex? We will have to examine our soul as a state and summon the will to make legislative changes that support this change, rather than consider it a “fairy tale” suitable only for those with gossamer wings. This transition has started in West Virginia, but it is an exception, even at this late date.