The US coal industry and the environmental movement

This month’s issue of the US magazine Mother Jones, published by a non-profit organization which describes itself a “news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting”, includes an article entitled “The Coal Industry Knows That Enviros Are Winning”.

The article is interesting because it describes how industry groups, in this case the American Coal Council, get themselves locked into political strategies that fail to promote the best interests of the industry.

In this particular case the industry has chosen to describe its opponents as waging a “war on coal”. They have been told by a marketing firm, and apparently agree, that, using this “war on coal” strategy, the industry is losing the battle for public opinion. Nevertheless, according to the Mother Jones article, they still cannot get away from accusing their critics, who now include President Obama, of waging a “war on coal”.

The fact is that coal is as important as ever to the North American economy. Certainly the amount of coal used for electricity generation may decline somewhat over the next 20 years but the reduction in use will be slow and might even be offset by growth in carbon capture and storage, if that technology ever gets off the ground. Steel manufacturing will continue to use coal, because there is no alternative, and there are significant opportunities for coal to replace oil and gas in some petrochemical applications.

GallonDaily is not a booster for the coal industry but there is significant evidence that a substantial, though perhaps slightly smaller, market for coal will continue for many years. By continuing to claim that it is the victim of a “war on coal” the coal industry apparently already knows that it is in a losing battle. If the industry could persuade itself to turn around, to admit that burning of coal for power without CCS and without pollution controls is just insane, and to identify and promote the many new opportunities for coal that will grow in the decades ahead, it will have a much more secure future than derives from trying to argue a “war on coal” strategy.

Some boosters of Canada’s oil sands are behaving in much the same way as the US coal industry. Attempting to persuade the public that the oil sands is a industry beleaguered by enviros is as losing a battle as is being conducted by the  US coal industry.

The Mother Jones article is available at or in the print magazine available at good magazine retailers across Canada.

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