Coal mining is one of Appalachia’s biggest industries, but it faces imminent collapse if this recent AP article is to be believed. Projections for 2015 mining activity are half that of 2008, as the remaining coal seams become more difficult and expensive to mine, and run afoul of increasingly stringent environmental regulations. To be sure, the country as a whole is still awash in coal, it’s just no longer to be economically found in Appalachia.

It’s understandable, even if misguided, for local industry representatives to blame the federal government regulations for their woes. After all, it is human nature to cling ever more tightly to an increasingly tenuous position, for fear of what the future holds. This is their world, it’s what they know, and anything else is frightening because it’s unknown. Consequently, the need to retain existing income-producing jobs trumps all concerns, and anything and anyone who appears to stand in the way is deemed to be the enemy.

But, even if these efforts to preserve jobs were to succeed, the victory would be pyrrhic. The Powder River Basin of Wyoming, for example, is already the single largest source of US coal, and contains one of the largest coal deposits in the world. This coal is cheaper to mine, and even cheaper to burn than Eastern coal, containing less sulfur. But Powder River will run out as well, probably in less than 20 years, and it’s unlikely that many of the people employed in Appalachian mining operations could find jobs in other mines even if they were willing to move.

At the same time, other forms of electricity are becoming less costly. A breakthrough claiming to triple wind turbine efficiency was reported by Kyushu University, which, if true, would plunge wind power’s cost/megawatt enough to make it clearly superior to coal–without considering any environmental impact of the two technologies.

As in many things in life, there is no way to truly secure these jobs any longer. Whether its changing attitudes towards the environment, or better technology, there is often nothing to be done except let go of our tenuous perch and jump into the unknown future. Of course, it’s easier said then done–but I think that is largely because we learn to avoid certain kinds of risks and gravitate towards others.

Why is that? I think it’s because we don’t learn how to evaluate risk as it applies to our lives in any formal way. I’ve taken risk management courses as part of my professional training, but not as part of my life training. Risk seems to be kept out of the public view. We need to see more risk evaluations as part of public discourse. For example, what are the risk models for earthquakes near nuclear reactors, or risks related to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, etc. I think we need to become more risk-aware, and instill a sense that risk is a normal part of our everyday lives and not something that we can push off to an insurance company.


About jeffmershon

Director of Program Management at SiriusXM.
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