Commies & Atheists: Why the Coal Industry Really Is a Relic of the Past

Back in the seventies and eighties, I got called names because of the work I did: "tree hugger" was a favorite, so was "bleeding heart." But that was a long time ago, before energy security and green enterprise became mainstream issues. Imagine my surprise when just two weeks ago, almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the CEO of a major coal company called me and my colleagues "communists and atheists."

Here is a sample from the speech given by Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, the fourth largest coal company in the nation. Keep in mind that these comments came soon after Blankenship compared the editor of the Charleston Gazette to Osama Bin Laden.

Turn down your thermostats? Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that's the first stage. You go from having your own car to carpooling to riding the bus to mass transit. You eventually get to where you're walking. You go from your own apartment and bathroom to sharing kitchens with four families. That's what socialism and the elimination of capitalism and free enterprise is all about.

I should have expected such distortions from a coal industry leader. After all, equating energy efficiency measures--things that will save Americans money, create green collar jobs, and keep America out of unstable regions of the world--with communism is about as accurate as saying coal is clean.

That's right; this is the industry that has brought you the multi-million dollar ad campaign selling the fiction of "clean coal."

There is no such thing as "clean coal." Coal is dirty when it's mined, and it's dirty when it's burned. Mountaintop removal mining (and Massey in particular) is creating an environmental holocaust on Appalachian landscapes. And pollution from coal-fired plants is not only the biggest contributor to global warming, but it is also responsible for 24,000 deaths a year in the United States.

Blankenship's comments sound to me like the rantings of a party apparatchik who knows he is about to be purged. Yes, coal is widely available and relatively cheap in America, China, and India, and as a result, it will be with us for awhile. But its days of getting easy financing from Wall Street and automatic preference from utilities are coming to an end.

Just a few weeks ago, NRDC joined with the nation's utilities and went before the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to say we are prepared to change the rules so energy efficiency and renewables are profitable for utilities.

Ensuring profits for utilities is hardly a communist move. But efficiency really is a threat to coal's tyranny. If we made just 5 percent of American homes more energy efficient we would eliminate the need for almost 300 power plants by 2030--and save consumers billions in energy costs.

If coal wants to stay in the game, it has to start dealing with its carbon footprint. It should move as quickly as possible to install technologies that capture carbon from coal plants and store it underground. Sequestration technologies are still emerging, but the only way to move from where we are now to full maturity is to put a price on carbon. That will give the federal government the funds to invest in research and development, and it will give companies the incentive to invest in deployment.

Call that communism if you like. I call it good business.