Coal vs. Fracking: Dig a Little Deeper

There has been a lot of news coverage in the past few weeks about the environmental and health hazards caused by coal mining, the production of energy from burning coal, and the environmental impact of storing water in retention ponds at power plants. Heck – even the Pope has taken a stance on coal mining and fracking, saying that we are stewards of this Earth and we are destroying God’s creation by strip mining for coal and fracking for natural gas. But what all of these reports fail to mention is the fact that energy production keeps small, rural communities financially afloat.

According to a recent story on NPR, the state of Wyoming is the largest coal producing state in the nation. (The Appalachian Mountains are a close second. In the Appalachian region, strip mining literally removes the mountaintops with explosives in order to extract coal. This poisons the air and can cause black lung, both for the miners themselves, as well as community members who live in the areas surrounding the mines.) Coal-burning power plants produce heavy smog, this contributes to high rates of asthma, lung disease and lung cancer. Coal also has negative health consequences on the heart and nervous system.

Many people have responded to the Pope’s declaration by saying that God and science are mutually exclusive, but I have to disagree. (More on that later.)

Let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the pros and cons of energy production and zoom in on rural communities themselves. The low cost of coal has forced many mining companies to go into bankruptcy. This has meant layoffs for thousands of workers. In fact:

. . . bankruptcy will likely mean layoffs for some of its 8,800 miners in five states, including West Virginia. This state already has a higher unemployment rate than any other. Here, it’s 7.4 percent, compared with 5.3 percent for the rest of the country. And the coal losses are hurting the state’s budget.

How does this relate to the oil and gas industry? For starters, one of the reasons why coal is being phased out as an energy source is because natural gas has become the most prevalent source of energy production in the United States. It also reaffirms the need for proper training to make sure that workers are following strict safely guidelines for oil and gas extraction. (This, after all, is what AYUDA is all about.)

It’s easy to point the finger at the corporations who are responsible for both coal and natural gas extraction. But the Environmental Protection Agency is just as responsible for polluting groundwater as the mining companies are. In fact, the EPA is to blame for three different instances of contaminating the Colorado River, in the same location, no less. Earlier this month the EPA issued a press statement admitting that they had released nearly 3 million gallons of toxic residue into the river, which will affect communities in the Four Corners region and beyond.

The [Environmental Protection Agency] is currently facing criticism for failing to notify other agencies quickly enough after the spill occurred — including the state of New Mexico, where the polluted water is heading. Indeed, if a company had acted in a similar fashion, the EPA might have potentially levied fines or other penalties.

Isn’t it ironic that the EPA can fine private businesses but has no financial responsibilities for its own careless behavior?

Let’s get back to the discussion of fracking. Fracking foes like to say that fraction drilling pollutes the groundwater. It doesn’t. Multiple studies have shown that fracking does not lead to groundwater pollution. (Check out this very informed, detailed discussion about fracking and water.) On the flip side, fracking bans, both at the state and local level, have negative consequences for communities that rely on natural gas extraction for economic stability. Take New York State, for example:

A recent report by the state comptroller found that while New York added 538,000 jobs between 2009 and 2014, virtually all of these jobs were concentrated in New York City. The Southern Tier, on the other hand, has been suffering. This is the region where most natural gas operations would be occurring had it been allowed by the state government. It didn’t, and now people are losing jobs and hope.

“The Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley, Central New York and North Country regions all experienced employment declines over the five years, with lower rates of total wage growth,” the comptroller’s report found, adding that overall labor participation in the region was falling as well.

People who work on the pipelines aren’t the only ones who are affected by fracking bans. We’ve discussed this in previous blog posts. A good example of this is the small town where my family lives. Joseph City, Arizona is located on the I-40, eighty miles east of Flagstaff and ten miles west of Holbrook. This town has a population of about 1500 people. The power plant that is owned by Arizona Public Service (APS) is located in Joseph City. It one of the primary sources of employment. Arizona APS has contributed millions of dollars through state taxes to expand the high school and help the community maintain its facilities. Semi drivers stop at the truck stop in Joseph City. There is a US Post Office in town. There are also small businesses that provide sources of employment. However, without the APS power plant, this little town would not have a sustainable economy.

Rather than focusing on the procedural impacts of coal mining and fraction drilling, people on all sides of the energy debate need to expand the discussion to include the voices of people who rely on energy production as an important base of the local economy. Let’s tie this back to what Pope Francis had to say about honoring Mother Earth. Jesus didn’t spend his time hanging out with rich folks. He spent his time feeding poor people and healing the sick. Before we embrace a massive shift in energy production, we need to make sure that economic stability is factored into the equation. Wind energy and solar power make a lot of sense/cents. But we need to make sure that these forms of energy production are in place before we pull the plug on oil, gas, and coal. We need to make sure that there are clear standards of safety in place before we kick fossil fuels to the curb. And we need to make sure that we hold the government to the same standards that it is supposed to enforce before we put all of the blame on the energy industrial complex.


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