Can carbon sequestration save Virginia’s coalfields?

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Many elected officials who care about the stark challenges confronting America’s coal-producing regions today are pinning their hopes on carbon capture and sequestration. This technology takes carbon dioxide out of power plant emissions and stores it underground. Since coal is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for heating the planet, carbon sequestration might be the only way to continue our use of coal in a world increasingly worried about climate disruption.

Virginia’s newly-elected governor, Terry McAuliffe, has high hopes for carbon sequestration. McAuliffe is confronting a problem that confounded his predecessors: how to deal with the continuing economic decline of southwest Virginia’s coal-producing counties. But, enthusiastic as he is about new technology, McAuliffe should be skeptical of suggestions that carbon sequestration offers a solution to Virginia’s coal decline. It does not.

This decline has been going on for decades. It predates the recession and the Obama presidency and tighter regulations aimed at protecting public health. It predates the explosion in natural gas fracking that has made gas cheaper than coal. Coal employment in Virginia has steadily dropped and is now below 5,000 workers, less than half of what it was in 1990. The best coal seams have been mined out, exacerbating the problem that Virginia coal is more expensive to mine than coal from other states. To get at the remaining seams as cheaply as possible, coal companies increasingly resort to mountaintop removal, destroying vast tracts of the Appalachians with explosives and giant machines (but very few workers). Even if carbon capture and storage proves successful, coal employment in the commonwealth won’t recover.

We aren’t the only Appalachian state facing this problem, but others are tackling it head-on. Kentucky, facing an even steeper decline in its coal-producing areas, has launched a bipartisan effort to help the region move beyond coal. This doesn’t mean they are happy about it, but they are willing to look facts in the face.

In Virginia, on the other hand, the response for some years has been to throw money at the coal companies and hope for the best. Virginia taxpayers shell out millions of dollars every year to corporations that mine Virginia coal. Legislators keep renewing the coal subsidies even though a 2011 review by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee concluded they aren’t effective.

If throwing money at coal companies can’t halt the slide in Virginia coal, it’s hard to see how carbon sequestration technology could do it, even if the government were to pay for it. And given the environmental destruction involved in mountaintop removal mining, prolonging the end of the coal era in Virginia shouldn’t be anyone’s priority.

The start of a new administration offers a chance for a new strategy. Admittedly, it won’t be easy. The challenge of bringing new industries to a remote and mountainous region is a tough one, and support for coal still remains high in the area. Why, then, insist on confronting cold reality?

Because it has to be done.

Terry McAuliffe campaigned on jobs, and has given every indication he means it. Given his background, connections and talents, he is in as good a position as any governor in recent times to take on the challenge of helping southwest Virginia diversify its economy. He can work with the legislature to redirect the millions of dollars currently going to ineffective coal subsidies into tax credits for jobs in new industries and support for projects like home weatherization that create jobs and make a difference in people’s lives. He can challenge the entrenched interests, twist arms, enlist allies, recruit businesses, use the media—in short, make this a priority. The residents of the coalfields deserve as much.

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