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Thursday, September 8, 2016

David Roberts on Coal Company Environmental Remediation

There are groups out there dedicated to stopping every energy source you can imagine. Antinuclear organizations have convinced their supporters that nuclear power is evil incarnate. They can't change their policies now if they wanted to because they actually have created a monster. Acknowledging the truth about nuclear energy at this point would likely bankrupt many environmental organizations.

David's article: As coal companies sink into bankruptcy, who will pay to clean up their old mines? reflects what I have called his good versus evil world view. I have, on rare occasion, made mention of this propensity in the Grist comment field.

As a philosophy major, Roberts might enjoy this 2008 article by Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature titled The Moral Instinct:

At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. (The actor Will Smith had many historians on his side when he recently speculated to the press that Hitler thought he was acting morally.) But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance. With affirmative action, for example, the opponents can be seen as arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify conservatives’ concern with families while noting that gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.

In short, it would help to stop pouring gas on the fire. He seems to have a really hard time empathizing with his opponents, be they conservative Republicans or fossil fuel companies. Now, you may be tempted at this point to stereotype me as a shill apologist for big coal and also take this opportunity to show readers in the comment field that you have heard of the Godwin's Law meme. My environmental credentials likely put yours to shame, nobody is paying me anything to write, and we have all heard of Godwin's law. Coal took the pressure off of our forests just as oil did for whales, but it's time for coal to go just as a time came to stop using wood for energy, whales for oil.

Over the years, David has repeatedly insinuated that it's the conservatives who support nuclear energy, and very recently expanded that list to include white males. If, as a climate hawk, your real goal is to fight climate change instead of stereotypes in your head, you would look for ways to compromise rather than paint them as immoral monsters.

And if coal executives are monsters for dumping emissions into the atmosphere, what does that make the antinuclear folks who have managed to terrorize the populations of two of the largest economies on the planet into substituting fossil fuels for their nuclear energy? 

Look at the map below. Those are superfund sites. I'm pretty sure few of them have anything to do with coal mining.

My point? The leadership of the coal industry is no more or less moral than that of most other heavy industries, or most people for that matter.

1. Chemicals and plastics

2. Steel and oil refining, production

4. Industrial machinery

5. Mass transit (railways, airlines, shipbuilders)

I have watched with great interest the efforts to clean up a superfund sites near my home, one caused by the Aerospace industry and one by the coal-to-gas industry.
A surface coal mine in Britain before and during the reclamation process
But I digress. Dave's article is painting a particular company (Peabody) in a particular industry (coal) as particularly evil because ...that's how he sees it. His article draws heavily on two Bloomberg articles that he links to. The main difference between those articles and his is the added vitriol. David's view of bankruptcy:

In the context of US capitalism, corporate bankruptcy has become less an admission of failure or a final chapter than a kind of R&R, a chance to shed some flab and come back stronger.

So it is with Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, which entered bankruptcy back in April. It is currently undergoing its bankruptcy spa treatment — shedding workers and retirees, their health and pension benefits — and preparing to get back to work (or so it hopes).

According to the Bloomberg articles he links to, thanks to natural gas taking so much market share, there are simply too many coal companies competing for less market, which has inevitably led to a shakeout of the weaker companies. Bankruptcies represent a loss for a whole host of companies and people invested in that company, and in the case of cleaning up old coal mines, the environment as well. Peabody and the other coal companies didn't want to go bankrupt as Dave seems to be insinuating, and if I'm wrong, what would make them different than other companies that go bankrupt?

See list of over 100 solar companies that have gone bankrupt here, and here and how much of their chemical mess was left for taxpayers to clean up, I have no idea.

And who's to blame for the failure of the "self--bonding" scheme that has failed to fund cleanup, the politicians who allowed it, the environmental bloggers who ignored it until it was too late, or the leadership of the company that finds itself in bankruptcy ...and who cares? What matters, is that it gets cleaned up.

Who will cover the $411 million in remaining cleanup costs? Taxpayers ..."officials estimate that roughly $3.6 billion in self-bond liabilities could fall to taxpayers" ... If Peabody goes under (again, completely) and bails on cleanup, who will cover the remaining 72.5 percent of costs? Taxpayers ... Otherwise, taxpayers will once again get stuck with the bill for coal companies’ social costs, propping them up because no one in US officialdom seems prepared to allow them to die a natural death.

So, what is the difference between a taxpayer and someone who pays an electric bill? Not much. Coal has provided part of pretty much everyone's electricity over the last century so if the cost of cleanup had been in our bills all that time, there would be enough money. As it stands, we may be paying that money from our taxes as opposed to our electric bills. To put $3.6 billion into perspective, divide it by the number of people using electricity: $3,600,000,000/320,000,000 = for a one time hit of $11.0 per person. And there's a chance that they will finally meet their cleanup obligations in the end.
That would amount to a $3.6 billion subsidy to big coal, the latest (maybe the last?) in a century-long tradition of subsidies.
It would be a subsidy if the company were not going bankrupt. Dave seems to think that if you help Peabody go under by forcing them to fully fund cleanup, we would have less coal. Not so much. Other companies will bid for the scraps and continue to meet demand, the less efficient company will simply cease to exist, more efficient companies continue mining coal.

Because VOX isn't interested in promoting public discussion of their content under that content in comment fields, feel free to click on this link to see other articles where I peer review some of David's articles.

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