It’s easy to see coal as the bad guy. It is the bad guy in most of the ways that matter. Coal is a fossil fuel, a nonrenewable resource that we are consuming too quickly. Mining and cleaning coal releases pollutants into surrounding lakes and rivers and leaves ash and solid wastes to fill landfills. When coal is burned, it emits sulfur dioxide, acid gases, heavy metals (such as mercury and arsenic), and carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for global warming. Yet in 2013, coal generated 39% of the US’s electricity. Why are we still so dependent on coal energy, and why don’t we just switch to something sustainable?

It may be dirty, but it’s cheap. The abundance of coal and relative ease of using it to generate electricity have kept prices down. It is only recently, with the boom in shale gas production due to fracking, that natural gas prices have lowered enough to be competitive. Still, coal is easy to burn and produces a great deal of energy when combusted. Coal has been the largest source of energy generation in the United States for over 60 years. Things are changing, though. With the new EPA regulations on CO2 emissions, the costs of coal production will go up, and cheap alternative energy sources will be sought with increased zeal.

Environmentally, ridding ourselves of our dependence on coal is a good thing. But there’s another side entirely to the coal issue, and that is the side of the coal miners. I moved to a rural community in West Virginia when I was twelve. There, coal mining was a major way of life. The fathers of many of my classmates were coal miners, and now, some of my classmates have grown up to work underground. In that community, political signs in yards decry any candidate who is anti-coal. It isn’t that these people don’t understand the environmental impacts or don’t care about the natural beauty of the state, but feeding their family comes first, and for many of them, the coal industry has been doing that for generations.

In West Virginia, the coal industry directly employs about 25,000 people. The number of coal employees in the entire US is close to 90,000. What will these people do when (and it is a when, not an if) we either exhaust our coal resources or drastically reduce coal production in favor of alternative energy sources? This isn’t just a problem for our country. China produces more than three times the amount of coal that the US does, and employs an estimated 5 million people. Other leading coal producers are India, Australia, Indonesia, and Russia. It is imperative to find clean energy alternatives to coal and fossil fuels, but it is equally imperative to find alternative careers for the men and women dependent on the coal industry.

In every issue there are multiple points of view. What is best for a politician is almost never what’s best for the average person. What seems like a good decision to a university professor may not take into account the coal miner who never went to college. We must find a way to balance the needs of the environment and of our neighbors to find a way we can all live gently on the earth.

Jessie Rack is a PhD student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. She is passionate about science communication and environmental issues, and spends her free time reading, writing, and finding ways to be outdoors.

Jessie Rack is a PhD student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. She is passionate about science communication and environmental issues, and spends her free time reading, writing, and finding ways to be outdoors.

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