Former President Bush was rightly concerned about what he called an "addiction to oil" --- but one of his proposed solutions was to mine more coal. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 repealed the 160-acre cap on coal leases and required an assessment of coal resources on federal lands. In addition, one-and-a-half billion dollars of incentives were offered to invest in "clean coal technologies." Yet very little has happened with regard to regulatory changes in coal mining since the passage of controls on surface mining in the 1970s.
The Obama administration has been fairly static on the matter as well --- with only some marginal decisions on improving water quality regulations and asking for more inspections.
And now we're in the shadow of the worst mining disaster to befall our country in twenty-five years. The significance of governance mechanisms to ensure accountability of natural resource enterprises is painfully evident to the communities in Appalachia. Not only do they exemplify the occupational and environmental hazards of resource extraction, they also show how poverty can persist despite an abundance of resource wealth.
However, instead of berating source extraction we must figure out how to make resources economies work most effectively for mineral-dependent communities.
It is high time Congress stepped up to the challenge of managing our minerals without parochialism and with a sense of national urgency.
The national debate on this matter has been polarized by activists proclaiming the perils of mineral reliance on the one hand and industry lobbyists finding statistical comparisons to make mining accidents seem aberrational. Yet we owe it to the families of the victims in disasters such as the Massey Mine to give more measured and meaningful consideration to our mineral policy.
A study published by the Charleston Gazette clarifies the situation. Between 1996 and 2005 there have been almost 300 fatal coal-mining accidents -- killing 320 workers. The Mining Safety and Health Administration fined coal operators more than 14 million dollars, but most of these fines have been reduced to trivial amounts in the courts. For example, when 13 miners were killed in the Jim Walter No. 5 explosion in Alabama, the agency fined the company $435,000. However, a judge reduced the fine to $3,000.
The United States still gets more than 85 percent of its energy from nonrenewable fossil fuels, of which more than a quarter comprises coal. We need an integrated mineral strategy that considers energy and material sources for our modern lifestyles across the supply chain. Dismissing successive mining accidents as aberrations - or maligning minerals per se - is unhelpful. Let's reform our mining laws, focus on enforcement when needed, and diversify our energy portfolios with care and constancy.
Broadcast as a radio commentary piece for Vermont Public Radio: