John Buell

Coal and Predatory Capitalism

Just days after the worst US coal mine disaster in a quarter century, the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan to South Africa to build one of the world’s largest coal-fired electric power plants. Though both South African and US environmentalists had urged the US to vote no, abstention was the best they could achieve. Coal plays an outsized role in our politics. Just how and with what consequences are questions that must be addressed if we are to enjoy sustainable growth.

Coal’s advocates argue that it provides the cheap electricity that can lift the poor both here and abroad out of poverty. Coal, however, is far less cheap than its advocates suggest once a full accounting of its social costs is included.

Over the last century, mine accidents have killed over 100,000 miners. Since miners’ compensation seldom reflects the job’s risk, miners and their families in effect subsidize our cheap energy. The effects of coal mining, however, do not stop with death from mine disasters. A family friend, Sarah Vekasi, an eco-chaplain in West Virginia, put the case eloquently after the tragedy: “Imagine if the national press came in and camped out at our local elementary school every time we reported that 30 men in our community were diagnosed with Black Lung and 30 children have missed an inordinate amount of days of school due to unidentifiable illnesses caused by drinking polluted water and breathing toxic air? This is a national emergency and the issues reach further back than just how this particularly horrible mine explosion happened to how a single industry has dominated this region and what we, as a national and regional community are going to do to change that.”

Economic domination and environmental degradation may worsen as jobs in coal country become scarcer. Mining corporations resort to job blackmail and routinely buy political influence. Coal mining today reflects and is part of a transformation in US capitalism from a system of regulated and countervailing powers to what economist James Galbraith labels predatory capitalism. In the wake of President Reagan’s assault on the air traffic controllers, Massey Energy joined the growing group of US corporations that used every technique, legal or illegal, to bust its unions. Neither regulations nor unions were to limit profits. The strategy paid off, giving Massey mines liberty to slash wages and flaunt safety rules.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship is right out of Vince Lombardi’s playbook where “winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing.” Lives rather than football games, however, are at stake here. Blankenship’s notorious memo instructing mine superintendants to put coal production ahead of all other considerations encouraged cutting corners on worker safety at every turn.

Unionized mines are safer because miners who spot and seek to address safety concerns cannot be arbitrarily fired. Preventing future disasters and addressing coal’s environmental impact depends on activism on several fronts and across several national and ideological boundaries. Even with a sensible energy policy, some mining will continue. It is imperative that the right of miners to unionize be protected. Mine standards must be strengthened and enforced. Environmentalists should support these efforts for at lest three reasons: 1) Social justice requires it. 2) Empowered and fairly-compensated workers will force coal’s price to better reflect its social cost. 3) Occupational risks to miners, such as fine particulates in the air or mercury residue are also often precursors or indicators of broader dangers to the community.

For both environmental and technological reasons coal mining is unlikely to be a long-term job creator. Nonetheless, miners dependent on those jobs now are more likely to resist broader environmental goals until they see real employment prospects. In Yes Magazine, Brooke Jarvis points to a West Virginia initiative to compare Massey Energy’s proposed mountaintop-removal surface coal mine with an alternative 328-megawatt wind farm. The study found that wind would bring the county government far more revenue while costing $600 million less in health expenses and lost resources. Nonetheless, as a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust indicates, the US spends less of its GDP on alternative energy than even such coalaholics as China. Our priorities are economically and ecologically short-sighted.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010

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