Colorado coal mining sits at a crossroads. Skyrocketing demand and potential environmental regulations may force coal insiders to make difficult decisions about the industry’s future—and the fate of the 2,200 Coloradans who venture deep into the earth to mine the black gold.
The United States has enough coal to fuel the country for 250 years, according to the National Mining Association (NMA). With few reliable energy alternatives and a dramatically increasing need to power up our iPods and plasma screens, our craving for more energy may well override our sense of environmental responsibility. “Coal’s role in our energy needs is huge right now,” says Luke Popovich, NMA spokesperson, “and it’s expected to grow larger.” According to Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association (CMA), Colorado’s coal production has increased by nearly 40 percent in the last 10 years, and coal’s overall share of American energy production is expected to increase from 50 percent today to 57 percent by 2025. As Eastern coal reserves thin out, utilities will look toward Wyoming, Colorado, and other states to fuel their plants with clean, cheap coal. According to the Energy Information Administration’s 2007 Annual Energy Outlook, by 2030 nearly 68 percent of domestic coal will come from states west of the Mississippi River.
For mine operators like Jim Cooper, the changes may mean having to squeeze blood from a stone by upping production, hiring and training new workers, and trying to keep his mine safe while still producing at maximum capacity. Cooper and his colleagues will also have to keep one eye on the politics of coal to gauge how long he may or may not be in business. For miners like Pagone, the situation’s a bit different. Although coal mining pays relatively well, that’s not why he does it. “I like a good challenge,” he says. “The scope of the work is generally the same, but on a daily basis something is always going to be different, going to be a test, an adventure.” But in this industry, Pagone always has to worry about whether he’ll have a job next week. “I don’t really think about what the reason will be for being out of a job, but I’m always thinking what I would do if coal died,” he says. “It’s always on your mind.”
Our energy conundrum—needing more but wanting less environmental fallout from it—has given the coal industry what it wants: time. Time to keep digging and burning without putting too much sweat equity into figuring out how to make coal environmentally friendly. The sentiment seems to be, why change when things are going so well for coal right now? “Green power—biofuels, wind, solar—is great to meet peaking demand, but right now coal has to stay in the energy mix for us to continue to meet our energy needs,” Popovich says, adding that it’s “really fanciful” to think that simply throwing money at renewable fuels will create an energy infrastructure adequate enough to replace coal within a decade or two. “People don’t understand how little energy is currently generated by renewables and what an enormous increase and change in our energy infrastructure you would be asking the country to undergo,” he says. “People get excited about green power and they forget the real world.” It’s an approach that angers impatient environmentalists, who counter that the coal industry’s lengthy stall tactics only delay the development of cleaner technologies.
Whether production increases dramatically to meet energy needs or demand drops because of environmental backlash, miners suffer the consequences. Increasing production means harder hours underground, more dangerous conditions, and a desperate need for more miners. If the pendulum swings the other way, miners may be out of a job altogether. “If coal is going to have a sustainable future and keep these mining jobs, the industry is going to have to come to grips openly, frankly, and quickly that global warming is a huge problem,” author Jeff Goodell says. “Unless they figure out a way to deal with it, these mines are going to go out of business. And in that sense, these miners are getting screwed by their own industry.”