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By Michael Davis

What is the real problem with coal?

When President Trump was elected, he promised to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia. But is doing so as simple as rolling back regulations on mining? Here are a few ideas from others about some of the issues facing coal.

Is it a regulatory problem or a market problem?

While the industry may benefit from an improvement in regulatory policy, some argue that the coal industry is going the way of the rotary dial phone. It may still be useful, but there are more efficient and profitable ways to produce electricity. The more less-expensive alternatives to coal the industry finds, the harder it will be to sell coal. So even if the mining industry gets a boost, who will actually buy the coal?

Is it about clean coal emissions or the effect of mining on the environment?

The term "clean coal" in itself can be general. According to some sources, clean coal is a reference to the lack of carbon dioxide in power plant emissions. This vague term began being used in the wake of global warming talks. While there are a few efficient plants around, only one has utilized the latest strategies for emissions; a single plant in Texas has begun storing its carbon dioxide underground, and it took a large federal grant to enable this.

Is it any different than strip mining?

While not popular, the method of removing mountaintops to retrieve coal is still used. If you live in a less elevated area that produces coal, the effects of strip mining can take decades and mounds of money to reverse. While regulations have made it harder and more expensive to mine coal, other industries have been able to cut costs. In that respect, deregulation seems to make sense. But what about demand for coal?

Is coal a health risk?

Recently, the government halted a study attempting to determine if mountaintop coal mining posed a health risk. Is it a greater health risk than underground mining, or strip mining outside the mountains? This practice, which began in the 1960s, allows dumping of mining rubble into streams alongside the mountain. The study stopped because there were no clear signs connecting this practice with health problems. The issue here is heavy metals contaminating streams. But is it less safe than other methods? Or can any mining method put the water table at risk? And would a more entrepreneurial economy benefit Appalachia more than saving the mines?

What about federal lands?

The idea to put federal lands to use is once again on the table. Mining in federal land has been a controversial subject. Those who use the land to water cattle worry about contamination. The prospect of removing coal from federal lands is dim in the face of environmental concerns.
Since many U.S. coal-burning plants are being shut down, Asian coal plants are a major source of demand for U.S. mines. So there is still demand for coal somewhere. If coal can be extracted safely, would it still be profitable to keep mining? The regulations that make it difficult to export this coal may be a concern. The balance lies between making it safe for our children and profitable for business.

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