Coal’s brand image needs work

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

When I rode through far Southwest Virginia with a newspaper publisher years ago, the roads were narrow, and the scenery dropped like a cliff on the left and rose like a wall on the right.  Rounding a curve, my friend pointed out a convenience store built on a reclaimed coal mine.  Before the mine, there wasn’t enough flat land to build a store or even park a car.  Economic development comes hard in coal country, and flat land makes a difference.

Like most industries where the labor is hard, mining is dangerous.  The families of those killed in April at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia have suffered terrible losses that cannot be diminished.
Nonetheless, our consumption of coal isn’t likely to end anytime soon.  Increased energy demand is an immutable characteristic of modern life.

The latest statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Agency show that coal accounts for 19.7 percent of the U.S. energy supply for all uses, including transportation. The picture, however, is different when you focus on electric power alone. In Virginia, for example, coal-fired plants account for nearly half of electrical generation while nuclear power plants account for another third, according to the agency. 

An August report by The Associated Press indicated that since 2008 more than 30 traditional coal-fired plants have been built or are under construction in the U.S.  This is coal power’s largest expansion in two decades. 

However, as marketers would say, coal has a “brand image” problem.  People associate it with poverty, black-lung disease, labor strife and mine disasters.  Despite this image, today coal is cleaner.  New technologies for carbon sequestration and coal-to-liquid fuel conversion have been proved in the laboratory and need public and private investment to be commercially viable.

Coal is an important part of our economy.  The U.S. holds the largest share of the world’s coal supply, making us the Saudi Arabia of coal.  Coal also is Virginia’s third largest export.

With a moratorium on offshore drilling, Virginia’s ambitions to become the “Energy Capital of the East Coast” rest largely on wind turbines and biomass.  Coal needs to be a part of this equation.  Underneath coal’s tarnished brand lie new opportunities.

During its heyday in the early 1900s, Southwest Virginia’s coal country was the epicenter of the state’s economy.  Jobs in mining, lumber and railroads were the mainstay of the state’s growth long before we became so dependent on federal spending in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Though mining activity in the state has decreased, Norfolk Southern and CSX still transport significant amounts of coal to Virginia’s ports and to other states.  Alpha Natural Resources, which is moving its headquarters to Bristol, has become the third largest coal company in the U.S.

Virginia’s top-ranked universities already are involved in research for reclaiming mine lands, as well as coal-to-liquid and carbon-sequestration technologies. Miles of underground tunnels from abandoned mines offer potential sites for commercial application of carbon sequestration.

Turning around coal’s brand image will take work.  It will require genuine progress and not just a bunch of slogans proclaiming coal to be “clean and green.”  We need to get serious about the research and public/private partnerships required for coal-to-liquid and carbon sequestration to become commercially viable pieces of a total energy solution.  This is a great opportunity where Virginia can and should be leading the way.

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