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By Joseph A. D’Agostino
© 2000, Human Events
ALLEDONIA, Ohio — The inside of the coal mine is not black, but coated white with limestone dust — to suppress explosions.
Yet, it is not the potential for a disaster in the mine, but the certainty of the disaster that will befall it from outside — if Al Gore is elected president and enforces the unratified Kyoto global warming treaty — that worries the men who ride to work on their backs each morning on the small electric trolley that rumbles for miles through the tunnels of the Ohio Valley Coal Co.
“Let me put it this way,” shouts miner Dick Homko, when asked his opinion of Al Gore, as the trolley Homko is riding clanks through a turn. “I like to hunt. I’m a coal miner. And I pay a lot of taxes.”
A miner since 1974 and an employee at this particular mine since 1985, Homko says he has a passion for his job but does not deceive himself about its long-term prospects if the Democrat is elected president in November.
“Gore would destroy the industry,” he says.
Threat to miners
Bob Murray, owner of this mine that sits beneath beautiful rolling fields and forests in eastern Ohio, owns several other mines elsewhere in the Ohio Valley and employs a total 2,300 people. He is the largest independent coal miner in the country.
“I am from this county,” Murray said. “This is my home. This is the last coal mine in this area.”
As recently as 1984, there were seven mines in this rural area, says Murray. Now his, which employs 450 people in well-paying jobs, is the sole survivor.
“I’m 60 years old, but I am not in good health,” he said. “This mine would not be here if it were not for my efforts. I have lost over $20 million on this mine in the last two years.” (He produced financial statements showing losses in 1998 and 1999 and continuing losses so far this year.)
“I have a heavy debt load. I am still in business because some of my other mines are profitable and I have credibility with my customers.”
After working for the North American Coal Corp. for 31 years, Murray struck out on his own in 1987, borrowing tens of millions of dollars to start his own mining business. Three years later, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, mandating lower sulphur dioxide emission levels for U.S. industries that burn coal.
“My coal, eastern coal, is better fuel than western coal,” he said. “But western coal is low-sulphur. Eastern coal is high in sulphur. So, utilities pay the cost of shipping coal 1,700 miles from the Powder River Basin out west to Ohio instead of using Ohio. No one has ever proven that the higher levels of sulphur dioxide are harmful. Utilities charge me for the sulphur content in my coal, which has three times the sulphur of western coal.
“I don’t make money,” he added.
Murray sees hope for the future in electricity deregulation, particularly if a bill he has helped write gains steam in Congress. The bill would provide tax incentives for utilities to install “clean-coal technologies” in their plants, allowing them to use high-sulphur coal without releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. (Called the National Electricity and Environmental Technology Act, the bill has 27 sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va..)
But Murray now sees a threat even bigger than the Clean Air Act coming over the horizon. The threat is the Democratic candidate for president.
“If Al Gore is elected president of the United States,” Murray repeats several times, “the American coal industry will be virtually wiped out. The Clinton-Gore administration has been implementing the Kyoto environmental treaty through executive orders and regulations. The Senate does not have to ratify it. A Gore administration would destroy the industry by itself.”
“When you read his book,
‘Earth in the Balance,’” Murray says, “you can see that Al Gore is not a balanced person. The Edison Electric Institute did a study that concluded that if the Clinton-Gore administration’s policies were continued, the proportion of U.S. electricity that comes from coal would drop to 10 percent. Right now, it’s 50 percent. That would be the end of the industry.”
That in turn would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy as a whole — affecting the lives of tens of millions of people who live in suburbs far from little Alledonia and who work in white-collar jobs that, on the surface, would seem to have no connection to what goes on in the limestone-lined coal tunnels of the Ohio Valley.
About half of the cost of electricity, according to EEI (a research foundation funded by electric utilities), comes from the cost of the fuel. Last week, natural gas — an alternate fuel for electricity generation — was selling at six times the price of coal.
“And if coal is eliminated,” said Murray, “the huge increase in demand for gas will inflate its price. But electricity prices will at least triple without coal, because they’re not going to allow more nuclear power, and alternative energy technology is not anywhere close yet. The rest of the American manufacturing industry will move overseas to get cheaper electricity.”
Four engineering and geology professors from West Virginia University were also touring the mine that day. All four agreed that if Kyoto were implemented, the American coal industry could not survive. Enforcing Kyoto’s carbon dioxide emissions standards alone would require a dramatic cutback in the burning of fossil fuels.
“Natural gas can’t meet those standards either,” said Dr. Lloyd English. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t think it can be implemented as it is written.”
Dr. Syd Peng, who is one of the inventors of the longwall mining technique now used in this mine and who has been at West Virginia University since 1974, said, “The decline in the industry began in 1980-81. Now, after adjusting for inflation, the price of coal is one-third of what it was in 1970. The industry cannot survive many more cost increases.”
Dr. Abdul Wahab Khair served as president of the National Coal Industry of Afghanistan before fleeing to the United States in the face of the 1979 Soviet invasion.
“The Russians wanted to kill me because of my relationship to the president of Afghanistan,” he said matter-of-factly. Later, in the mine, he said, “America is the greatest country because we have natural resources and we use them. Americans want to work. They don’t want to depend on the government. But some people want to make it difficult to keep people working.”
According to the Clinton-Gore administration’s own Energy Department, Kyoto’s goals — including reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 — would shave 0.3 to 0.4 percent off GDP each year. That means a GDP 2.7 to 3.7 percent lower than it otherwise would be as early as 2010. That means 2.4 million fewer jobs, gasoline prices up 66 cents a gallon, and the cost of electricity up 86.4 percent — in just one decade.
Murray has taken care to educate his workers about what it would mean to elect Gore, who helped negotiate the Kyoto deal — which exempts developing countries such as China, Indonesia and Mexico from the restrictions that would be imposed on U.S. industry and U.S. job creation. Last week, Murray inserted a letter with his workers’ paychecks urging them to vote for George W. Bush, who twice in the first presidential debate last Tuesday endorsed clean-coal technologies.
All of the workers interviewed at the mine agreed that the election of Gore either “certainly” or “probably” would mean the “virtual elimination of the American coal industry” and the end of their jobs.
And they are good jobs. The average worker at Murray’s mine makes $50,000 a year plus benefits in an area that has a relatively low cost of living. And, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, coal mining is no longer one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Modern techniques and precautions have minimized the risks of “black lung” disease and mining accidents.
Many of the workers did not know that their own labor union, the United Mine Workers, had recently endorsed Gore.
“I heard that,” said Bob Standidge, as he stood 400 feet underground watching two men drill large pins into the ceiling of the mine to prevent cave-ins. “Is that really true?”
Asked if he believed Gore would eliminate the coal industry, he said, “As much as I believe anything about politicians, I believe that. I am certainly concerned about it.”
Jerry Taylor sloshed through a wet area in the tunnel. “He will close the industry,” said Taylor. “He says he wants to get rid of fossil fuels.”
Murray’s three sons, all under 30, want to go into the family business. One has already graduated from West Virginia University and two others are still studying there.
“Oh, yes, Gore will eliminate the coal industry,” said Jonathan Murray. “My father has proved that.”
Mark Karl, an independent consultant in Pennsylvania and until two months ago a member of the resources department at Duquesne Light Co. in Pittsburgh, said that without incentives, utilities are unlikely to adopt clean-coal technologies. Installing such technology at one average-sized plant can easily cost more than $100 million, said the engineer.
“We have a lot of coal in this country,” he said. “It makes sense to use it. But utilities don’t want to spend the money, and anyway, no one knows what the environmental regulations will be in this country 20 years from now.”
“This is not an environmental issue,” said Murray. “This is a human issue. I believe in the Constitution and smaller government. We need our constitutional rights protected.”