The Real War on Coal Starts in Kosovo

Coal is not the answer for Kosovo or anywhere else.

By + More

Last week, the so-called "war on coal," which Senate Joe Manchin, D-W.V., recently claimed is real, gained new momentum after the World Bank formally committed to stop funding most coal projects. Manchin, who knows something about existential wars given his laudable and bipartisan leadership in the Senate to improve gun safety in America, an effort some slam as a "war on guns," apparently does not now see the similarity between the two wars. 

These two wars, if they are wars at all, have the same end goal: to keep Americans alive. Compare the death rates from coal versus the death rates from guns in America. Over 13,000 American deaths are attributable to coal pollutants, while roughly 11,000 deaths stem from firearm homicides. A war on coal, furthermore, is not that dissimilar from another war America waged on a carcinogenic substance: tobacco. There is a precedent here.

If Manchin cares at all about consistency in keeping America safe, he must be willing to advocate on behalf of all Americans, not just the coal industry in his state. Not unlike how Manchin would want his fellow senators representing the firearms industry to do what's right for the nation, not simply serve industry lobbyists.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Remember that the transition from coal to clean energy is inevitable and is already happening. In five years, according to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy will make up 25 percent of global energy supply. Transition is part of industrial progress. Not unlike the transition from land lines to mobile phones (see AT&T's decision to abandon its copper lines), so too must coal follow copper and old, unsafe, un-smart energy grids must follow the land line. This is, after all, progress.  

There is no question that the coal industry will have concerns, as it did with President Barack Obama's speech last month when he called for "an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas." Big Coal also can't be happy with the World Bank's similarly timed pledge to finance fewer coal-fired power plants overseas, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. exported a record "125.7 million tons of coal last year, the third straight year of more than 100 million tons of exports," according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The consequences of this decision are not insubstantial. In some ways, the World Bank and Big Coal were best of friends, working in tandem, with a little help from other U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

And yet, remarkably, this motley crew of coal advocates remains devoted to the concept of coal-fired power plants – this time in Kosovo. In April of this year, the World Bank's president Dr. Jim Yong Kim joined the effort, suggesting the Kosovars would freeze to death if this coal-fired power plant didn't go forward as planned.

This coal advocacy by the World Bank is in direct contradiction with Dr. Kim's knowledge of, experience with, and advocacy on, global health issues. Since most of Kosovo's coal is processed in outdated, highly polluting power plants, it is plagued with ample coal-related health problems, with 835 early deaths, 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 22,900 new cases of respiratory diseases among children (most often asthma) and 11,600 emergency visits to country's hospitals. 

That this coal will come clean is a fallacy, though it's not surprising why everyone is curious about Kosovo's coal. The country has the world's fifth largest reserve of lignite. But that bounty comes with a huge environmental cost: lignite is the lowest grade of coal, has low energy content and is expensive to transport.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea?]

This hasn't stopped Washington notables like Wesley Clark, retired U.S. Army general and former Democratic presidential candidate, from trying to exploit Kosovo's coal. Clark, who chairs a Canadian energy company called Envidity, a company wanting to explore Kosovo's underground coal deposits, is claiming, like Dr. Kim, that coal is the answer to Kosovo's economic problems and energy security.

It is not. Yes, Kosovo is struggling economically, with an unemployment rate of about 45 percent and average salary, for those employed, of less than $6,000 per year. But the answer is not coal. 

The answer, instead, is in energy efficiency, which is hardly sexy from an industry perspective but absolutely necessary for Kosovo. Today, Kosovo is wasting 30 percent of its energy, according to official data, because sufficient energy efficiency programs have not been instituted. Add to that number another 37 percent from electricity losses (17 percent results from outdated grids and technical deficiencies, the rest from commercial losses).

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Government Invest in Green Energy?]

Beyond energy efficiency, the World Bank's former "Clean Energy Czar," Daniel Kammen, suggests that Kosovo's renewable energy sector could provide 34 percent of the country's energy demand by 2025, provide 60 percent more jobs (than a stay at the status quo) and provide savings between 5 and 50 percent (using a scenario that even includes a new power plant). In sum, there is no need for a new coal-fired power plant. The answer is in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Going forward, then, if the World Bank and Dr. Kim truly care about Kosovars living through the winter, they won't add more coal to the calculation. The choice is clear enough. In fact, one wonders who in the private sector is benefiting from this coal push in Kosovo, certainly not the Kosovars, which is why they have overwhelmingly rejected it.

This is one war that might actually save lives. And it starts with Kosovo.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

  • Read Heather Hurlburt: What to Make of John Kerry's New Plan for Israel-Palestine Peace
  • Read Michael P. Noonan: Foreign Fighters and Hezbollah in the Syrian Civil War
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad