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Trump to South Florida: Drop Dead

March 29, 2017

sea level rise

Yesterday, Donald Trump came down squarely on the wrong side in the struggle to halt and reverse the worldwide threat from climate change.  Specifically, he signed–with great fanfare–a sweeping executive order to rewrite federal regulations to ease carbon emissions, lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing, and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions. Basically, he was telling the world: “Fuck global warming, pollute all you want!”

No one can say that we didn’t see this coming, but Trump’s delivery of the message was so vindictively gleeful, that it’s hard not to read it as another spiteful effort to obliterate the legacy of Barack Obama. Maybe The Donald needed a little upper after the humiliating fiasco of his failed crusade to repeal ObamaCare.

And of course he presented his destruction of “job-killing” Obama-era regulations designed to speed transition to cleaner and renewable energy sources as removing the shackles on the economy and reviving the coal industry. “My administration is putting an end to the War on Coal. We’ll have clean coal, clean coal.” As if repeating it could somehow make it true. Sad.

How does promoting coal threaten South Florida? There is actually an interconnection here, which I’ll get to eventually, but first let us take a look at the coal industry and the jobs that Trump says he wants to save.

Coal mining has been an integral part of the culture of Appalachia (especially West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Pennsylvania) for well over a century. Mining is a dangerous and dirty job with side effects that often sicken and kill the men who do it, but it pays relatively well–thanks to unions that have fought sometimes violent battles with the coal companies for miners’ rights–in places where other opportunities are scarce. But coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental regulations but rather changes in mining techniques and mechanization and competition from other fuels.

In 1923 there were 863,000 coal miners in the US. In 2015, according to official figures from the US Energy Information Agency, there were only 65,971 people employed by the entire US coal mining industry, including those working in administrative jobs. In West Virginia, coal mining employed 15,490 people in 2015. By way of comparison, Walmart was employing 12,321 people in West Virginia in February of this year–albeit at average wages far lower than mining jobs usually pay.

Most of the coal now mined in the US no longer comes from underground mine shafts but rather from open surface pits, and most of it doesn’t come from Appalachia. In 2015, some 42 percent of US coal production came from Wyoming (versus 11 percent from West Virginia, the second largest producing state). Western coal mining is almost entirely from open pits like the enormous Black Thunder mine in Wyoming’s Powder River basin, seen in the Google Earth image below.

Black Thunder Mine

Even in Appalachia, almost a quarter of coal production now is from surface mining using a method called mountaintop removal. This has become especially prevalent in southern West Virginia, where 40 percent of coal production used this method in 2015. Basically, the tops of mountains are blasted away and leveled to get at the coal seams without need for tunneling, and the spoil is dumped in adjacent valleys creating a potential or actual water pollution hazard.

 

mountaintop removal

Mountaintop removal for coal mining in West Virginia

Surface mining is cheaper (especially if environmental costs are not a factor) and requires far less labor. According to the USEIA Annual Coal Report, in West Virginia in 2015, underground mining employed 12,255 miners and produced 75,212 tons, or 5.75 tons per miner. In Wyoming, 6,327 miners produced 372,682 tons, or 58.9 tons per miner–ten times the productivity. Best of all, from the perspective of the mining companies, is that surface mining tends to be done by non-union workers. In Wyoming, 97.4 percent of coal production in 2015 was by non-union labor. For Appalachia as a whole, 70 percent of all coal production was by non-union labor, which generally gets a lower wage and fewer benefits.

The bottom line is that even if coal production goes up (which is dubious), Trump’s promises to bring back lots of well-paying mining jobs are hollow nonsense.

The coal industry’s biggest problem now is competition from cheap natural gas created by the fracking boom (which brings its own problems) and sharply declining exports to China. More than 90 percent of US coal consumption is for generating electricity, and the decline in coal’s share of this market is almost an exact mirror image of the rise of natural gas. Also, over the last ten years, there has been a significant rise in electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, which has been encouraged by federal (and some state) government policies–programs that the Trump administration seems set on killing. Three of the four largest coal mining companies have sought bankruptcy protection over the last few years.

 

electric generation

The key looming issue is the fact that both coal combustion and mining are huge contributors to the build up of greenhouse gases that are generating climate change. Natural gas is not a benign fuel, but it produces about half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated as coal does. Therefore, increased reliance on natural gas is seen as a means of reducing CO2 emissions until alternatives like solar and wind can be ramped up. Coal mining (especially surface mining) also releases large amounts of trapped methane into the atmosphere (there are problems here with natural gas production as well).  Methane is some 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it’s estimated that about 6 percent of released methane comes from coal mining. Burning coal is also among the worst sources for other pollutants like mercury, which wind up in our waterways and oceans.

In other words, if you want to put the breaks on global warming, you should not be giving the green light to unfettered burning of coal and eliminating consideration of impact on climate change from federal decision-making.

But this is exactly what Trump’s executive orders have done. This is an administration full of climate change deniers from Trump himself to the malignant Scott Pruitt at EPA to the buffoonish Rick Perry at Energy, and on and on, reflecting the anti-science bias and disregard for evidence-based policymaking that pervades the entire Republican party which cares about nothing but money and religion. It’s really difficult to find words to express my horror at the willful catastrophes that this reckless cabal seems bent on creating, not just for the US, but the entire world. They really just don’t care!

After the Paris Accords of 2014, I had thought–perhaps–that we had a chance to correct course and avert a worldwide calamity, but from what I learn from the scientific community, that window is rapidly closing. By the time the Trump administration and Republican hegemony in Congress are over, it may well be too late.

All of which brings me back to South Florida, where the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area is probably more threatened than any other in the country by an inexorable rise in sea level. We now know it’s going to happen, we just don’t yet know how much and how fast. My house is 7.4 feet above sea level, so this is personal. (Have a look at this video.) Given my age, I probably won’t live to see anything close to the full extent of what’s in store for us here.  But damn it, I love this beautiful, crazy, fascinating city of Miami, and it makes me beyond enraged that so many of our elected officials are so eager to sacrifice the very land we live on at the altar of money.

So Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and all the other Republican deniers, FUCK YOU! You enable this disaster of an administration, and the consequences are on you.

 

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