Tom Pyle is the president of the Institute for Energy Research.
In recent days, activists protesting the practice of surface mining in the Appalachian region stormed the Capitol and engaged in a variety of demonstrations meant to draw attention to their cause. Notably, some protestors shaved their heads in public, proclaiming that "hair will grow back, but mountains won't."
The ludicrousness of the act aside, the protestors fail to grasp that what they are claiming coal mining does is against the law. Mountains are one of the United States's most treasured natural features, and it truly would be a shame if coal mining wrought the destruction on them that these activists proclaim it does. But under the numerous federal laws that govern surface mining, in which coal seams are accessed through removing the overburden above them, mining companies are required to restore the landscape to its approximate original condition and ensure that there are no serious impacts to the local ecosystem. Since 1977, federal law has required the restoring of landscape to the original or better contour (so mountainous areas remain mountainous), revegetating the area with native plants, and monitoring the numbers of wildlife that inhabit the reclaimed lands.
Moreover, companies are required to put a bond down prior to beginning mining operations to guarantee that money is in place for reclamation, no matter what, and they are responsible for monitoring former mine sites to confirm that the reclamation process is restoring the area to the law's standards over the course of several years.
In cases where achieving the original contour isn't possible because there isn't enough overburden material to do so, tracts of flat land that are sparse in mountainous coal mining regions have proven valuable for the development plans of surrounding communities. Reclamation sites have been used for projects like schools, airfields, and golf courses, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "Former mine lands can be ideal, scenic locations for recreational activities, including hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching ... Former mine lands can also provide valuable wildlife habitat for species requiring significant tracts of land in order to thrive."
Of course, those who oppose surface mining categorically reject the notion that there can be any benefit to developing coal resources in Appalachia, even if the lands are restored or used for development projects thereafter. The ultimate disingenuousness of the anti-coal campaign is seen in the many websites set up about "mountaintop removal" that show pictures of active surface mine sites, holding them out as if they were the final, permanent result of mining. Reclamation is a part of mining as much as the extraction of coal.
These anti-mining campaigns not only misrepresent the environmental impacts of surface mining, they wholly disregard the importance of it to the places they claim to want to protect. Far from destroying communities, surface mining is a centuries-old practice that has provided jobs and economic opportunity for generations of coal country inhabitants. In West Virginia, the average wage for coal miners in 2010 was $79,409, compared to an average of $36,990 for all other industries in the state. Furthermore, coal provided 12 percent of West Virginia's gross state product in 2010, and 98 percent of West Virginia's electricity (the sixth-cheapest of all the states) was provided by its own coal. And more than half the United States's electricity was generated using West Virginia coal that year, much of which comes from productive surface mines.
As surface mining practices become more efficient with technological innovations, our ability to balance energy production with environmental conservation improves as well. And indeed, the ability to use our natural resources in a manner that also conserves the land will bode well for our nation's energy future. According to the North American Energy Inventory, the 461.1 billion short tons of coal that can be recovered with today's technology is enough for 464 years of use at our current rate of consumption.
The United States has the largest coal resources in the world. They should be regarded as an asset, rather than a burden, especially because the law requires reclamation after mining has occurred. In addition to enhancing our ability to provide reliable, affordable electricity for generations to come, domestic energy production has provided jobs and economic growth through the best and worst of times in this country. Just don't count on the anti-coal lobby to highlight that fact anytime soon.