Coal workers heading home at the end of a shift (Nov. 12, 2015)
By placing a 20 percent tariff on Canadian softwood lumber, President Trump fired the first shot in a potential trade war with Canada. British Columbia (BC) Premier Christy Clark responded with an open letter asking Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to consider banning imports of thermal coal from the United States. A proposal that the Trudeau government is taking seriously, as it aligns with their well-publicized goal of phasing out all coal power generation by 2030. Doing so may very well be the nail in the coffin for coal communities in places from West Virginia to Montana. If this policy change occurs, what might happen to these places afterwards? There are no good answers.
What is thermal coal?
Ranks of Coal from Lignite to Anthracite
Coal is a fossil-fuel rock that is made up of mostly carbon, with remaining portions of water, air, hydrogen, and sulfur. It’s often mixed with additional impurities that do damage to the local air and environment when burned (see below). But the open letter was not intended completely phase out coal, but rather thermal coal specifically. As on the chart shown above, there are four main kinds of coal: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite. Lignite to low-grade bituminous is used exclusively for electricity generation, known as thermal coal. This most plentiful kind of coal has a lower carbon content and more impurities than higher-grades, making it the most environmentally damaging. High-grade bituminous coal is known as coking coal, which is used to produce coke - a key input in steel production. Anthracite, the rarest of coals, is very high carbon and burns much cleaner compared to other coals. It’s prized for its minimal impurities and therefore used almost exclusively in industrial production.
Why do the impurities matter?
Coal Exhaust from a power plant (Nov. 18, 2014)
Gases released during the burning of coal include carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, nitrous oxide, and sulphur oxide. The last two are the cause of acid rain, while nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2. Additionally, burning it releases coal ash into the local environment and often includes trace amounts of toxins including lead, germanium, arsenic, and uranium. The David Suzuki Foundation points out that, “Air pollutants from coal plants are known to produce heart and lung diseases, aggravate asthma and increase premature deaths and hospital admissions. Coal plants are also a significant source of mercury that is harmful to children exposed during pregnancy and in early life.” This has lead health and environmental groups, such as the Pembina Institute, to call for Canada to completely phase out coal for electricity generation by 2030. A call that Trudeau answered.
Why the Open Letter?
President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau (Feb 17, 2017)
As the United States moves away from coal - more due to it no longer being price competitive compared to natural gas from fracking, not environmental regulation - coal companies cite port expansion on the as a necessary lifeline to their declining industry as American ports currently lack the capacity to meet East Asian demand. But West Coast states have continued to deny expansion permits to based off of environmental concerns. As the next best alternative, American coal companies have turned to Canadian ports in British Columbia.
This puts the Province’s pro-environmental politics at the center of a critical juncture in coal’s supply chain. As BC does not use coal for electricity production and do not produce much thermal coal themselves, they have little incentive to help the industry and every incentive to hurt it. Even if Trudeau doesn’t ban thermal coal imports because of the softwood dispute, Christy Clark wants to tax the thermal coal industry out of existence.
What do American coal communities do now?
Mayor of Appalachia, VA after working a night shift in a coal mine (Oct. 26, 2012)
That is the question. There is no easy answer. East Coast mining companies have already started filing bankruptcy, and Rocky Mountain mining companies may soon follow suit. Unlike the boom-bust ghost towns of mining’s past, these communities continue to exist long after their economic underpinnings dissipate. They are left with devastated environmental landscapes, and often struggle with health problems from black lung to obesity. Without work, what then?
Some scholars, like Ed Glaeser, believe that the only answer is to stop subsidizing places – in effect, abandoning them – and instead subsidize people to retrain and move elsewhere. But is it fair to uproot whole communities? To ask people who have lived their entire lives in one home to move across the country?
What are your thoughts? Any ideas? Post in the comments below!
PhD Candidate in Planning
University of Toronto