Wage war on coal emis­sions, not coal coun­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MARIA T. ZU­BER The writer is the vice pres­i­dent for re­search at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and chair of the Na­tional Sci­ence Board.

Igrew up in a place named for coal: Car­bon County, Pa., where en­ergy-rich an­thracite coal was dis­cov­ered in the late 1700s. By the early 1900s, east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia em­ployed more than 180,000 min­ers. By the 1970s — when I left Car­bon County for col­lege — just 2,000 of those jobs re­mained.

For decades, my family’s path traced the arc of the in­dus­try. Both my grand­fa­thers mined an­thracite. My fa­ther’s fa­ther died of black lung be­fore I was born. My mother’s fa­ther lived long enough to get a pink slip, teach him­self to re­pair TVs and ra­dios and fi­nally get a job on the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike. He of­ten slept in a re­cliner be­cause he couldn’t breathe in bed. He had black lung, too.

We faced eco­nomic chal­lenges, but thanks to my fa­ther’s ca­reer as a state trooper, we had more se­cu­rity than most. Still, our neigh­bors’ strug­gles left a deep im­pres­sion on me. When I hear coal-min­ing com­mu­ni­ties talk bit­terly about a “war on coal,” I un­der­stand why they feel un­der at­tack. I know the deep anx­i­ety born from years of watch­ing their towns empty out and op­por­tu­nity evap­o­rate.

I was one of the peo­ple who left, in my case to pur­sue my pas­sion for sci­ence. I was lucky: I be­came the first woman to head a sci­ence department at MIT, as well as the first woman to lead a NASA plan­e­tary mission.

As a daugh­ter of coal coun­try, I know the suf­fer­ing of peo­ple whose fates are tied to the price of a ton of coal. But as a sci­en­tist, I know that we can­not re­peal the laws of physics: When coal burns, it emits more car­bon diox­ide than any other fos­sil fuel. And if we keep emit­ting this gas into the atmosphere, Earth will con­tinue to heat up, im­pos­ing dev­as­tat­ing risks on cur­rent and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. There is no es­cap­ing these facts, just as there is no es­cap­ing grav­ity if you step off a ledge.

The move to clean en­ergy is im­per­a­tive. In the long run, that tran­si­tion will create more jobs than it de­stroys. But that is no com­fort to fam­i­lies whose liveli­hoods and com­mu­ni­ties have col­lapsed along with the de­mand for coal. We owe some­thing to the peo­ple who do the kind of danger­ous and dif­fi­cult work my grand­fa­thers did so that we can power our mod­ern econ­omy.

For­tu­nately, there are ways we can de­clare war on coal’s car­bon emis­sions without declar­ing war on coal com­mu­ni­ties.

First, we should ag­gres­sively pur­sue car­bon cap­ture and stor­age tech­nol­ogy, which catches car­bon diox­ide from coal power plants be­fore it is re­leased into the atmosphere and stores it un­der­ground. To be prac­ti­cal, ad­vances in cap­ture ef­fi­ciency must be cou­pled with dra­matic de­creases in de­ploy­ment costs and an un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of stor­age. These are not in­tractable prob­lems; sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions could change the game.

Next, we should look be­yond com­bus­tion and steel pro­duc­tion to find new ways to make coal use­ful. In 2015, 91 per­cent of coal use was for elec­tri­cal power. But re­searchers are ex­plor­ing whether coal can be used more widely as a ma­te­rial for the pro­duc­tion of car­bon fiber, bat­ter­ies and elec­tron­ics — in­deed, even so­lar panels.

These av­enues hold prom­ise, but even if car­bon cap­ture be­comes prac­ti­ca­ble and we ex­pand other uses for coal, the in­dus­try will never come roaring back. Glob­ally, coal’s mar­ket share is drop­ping, driven by a range of fac­tors, in­clud­ing cheap nat­u­ral gas and the rapidly de­clin­ing costs of wind and so­lar en­ergy.

That’s why we must also com­mit to help­ing the work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties that are hurt when coal mines and coal plants re­duce their op­er­a­tions or shut down. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, re­searchers and ad­vo­cates have pro­posed a range of so­lu­tions at the fed­eral and state lev­els to pro­mote eco­nomic devel­op­ment; help coal work­ers tran­si­tion to jobs in other in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing re­new­able en­ergy; and main­tain ben­e­fits for re­tired coal work­ers.

Help­ing coal coun­try is an is­sue with bi­par­ti­san sup­port. Still, to suc­ceed, strate­gies such as these may re­quire a cham­pion who, like Pres­i­dent Trump, has wide­spread sup­port in coal coun­try and can ad­dress skep­ti­cism from coal com­mu­ni­ties.

Even­tu­ally, the prac­tice of burn­ing coal and other fos­sil fu­els for en­ergy — es­pe­cially without the use of car­bon cap­ture and stor­age tech­nolo­gies — will end. It has to. The ques­tion is whether we have the wis­dom to end it in an or­derly way that ad­dresses the pain of coal com­mu­ni­ties — and quickly enough to pre­vent the worst im­pacts of cli­mate change. Our choices will de­ter­mine the fu­ture not just for coal coun­try, but for all of us.


Smoke and steam bil­low from cool­ing tow­ers and smoke­stacks at the Bruce Mansfield power plant near Ship­ping­port, Pa.

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