Bluntly put, 23% of US energy consumption is supplied by coal. We have enough coal reserves to meet our complete energy needs for 250 years. Natural gas, a byproduct or co-recoverable resource with oil and coal, supplies 24% of our energy needs, and we increase our ability to find and recover it each year. Crude oil, about which so much political ado has prevailed in the last 50 years, is still partly a domestic resource. we only import about half of our yearly consumption. And oil supplies app. 37% of our national energy needs.
If you subtract industrial use and home heating, coal supplies, through generating plants, about half the nation’s electric power. Natural gas generation, nuclear generation, and renewables do not promise to put coal out of the picture soon. A HUGE portion of the nation’s carbon footprint, if you care about global climate change, comes from the burning of coal.
We recently lost 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and we lost 47 miners in 2006 in the Sago mining disaster. Coal mining ranks with commercial fishing and military service as the most dangerous professions in this society. We all listened and watched as prayers, opinions and excuses went up all over the country over the fate of those 29 men, and the question came up once or twice: Do we have to do this? Do we have to put men and women at risk to gouge coal from the earth profitably, burn it in some of the dirtiest smokestacks to generate our electricity, deal with the effects of rapid climate change while wringing our hands or engaging in denial, and watch our hunger for energy as a society grow every year without respite?
Do we have to kill our miners at this rate to keep the coal plants burning? yes, apparently we do. Until we have an alternative, and right now we don’t, we have to keep drilling, mining, leasing offshore sites to the highest bidder and waiting for the accidents and spills. We have to have the energy. At any cost, human, economic and, apparently military. The quiet conspiracy to secure Iraq’s oil was a failure. “Clean coal,” at least so far, is a myth few of us can buy. Nukes are scary, and dirty in the long run (dangerous to all life forms for 159,000 years after disposal).
We have no choice. We will continue to put miners at risk, drill and pipe natural gas, float drilling rigs where a spill could be disastrous, and humble ourselves at foreign tables, if not spill American blood, to secure a share of the world’s oil reserves. We don’t know how long we can keep this up; but we don’t have a plan to free us from this dangerous and expensive cycle: the pursuit of more and more energy. God bless the miners, drillers, reactor jockeys and power plant workers. We need you more than we let on; and we sacrifice you at a rate that would shame an enlightened society.