For most people, I imagine, a power plant is an eyesore, a blot on the landscape. For my family, it meant: A new car for mom and a used car for dad. Nice Christmases. New clothes for school. A trip to Disney World. Tuition to the Catholic high school that everyone went to because our town had no public high school (and the alternative in the next town over was really no alternative at all).
The “powerhouse” meant: Middle-class existence.
My dad worked at a generating station (still does, I should add, on a post-retirement ad hoc basis) in southern New Jersey. Slated for closure in a few years (along with about another 200 coal-powered generators), the place is a vanishing multipurpose beast that can seemingly burn anything: coal, oil, rubber tires. In its heyday, it housed a pile of coal high enough to last 90 days. Now it keeps a meager 10 days’ worth.
I remember the childhood thrills of hanging with the “coal gang,” as my dad’s workmates were called. I got to ride — even drive! — the locomotive that moved CSX cars heaping with coal. I stood inside a cooling tower through which the night sky looked like a portal into another dimension. I worked the joystick that controlled a conveyer belt that fed coal to the giant pile. Most thrilling of all were the bumpy bulldozer rides to the very top of that pile.
All of this is to say that I get, on a personal level, stories like Katrina Trinko’s at National Review Online:
Under the Obama administration, coal has faced a punishing regulatory environment. “I think the Obama administration should be ashamed for putting out of work these middle-class coal miners in the state of Ohio and throughout the country,” says Josh Mandel, Ohio state treasurer and Republican Senate candidate. “These coal miners and their families live in some of the poorest counties in America, and the Obama war on coal is killing jobs in parts of America that can least afford it.”
I suppose you can say that my family lived on the sunny side of the coal chain. Digging it out of the ground is a lot harder than burning it. Still, I get it. The federal government is taking away people’s livelihoods. At the same time, however, viscerally appealing “war on coal” rhetoric poses a problem for modern conservatives. The capitalism-deifying conservative is expected to make the (not unreasonable) case that societies must become rich before they can worry about a cleaner environment and better public health. He is supposed to celebrate disruptive technologies like fracking, which is contributing to a glut of natural gas and a consequent decline of coal.
From this perspective, coal is in part a victim of creative destruction.
Coal isn’t simply the horse-and-buggy to natural gas’s automobile, however. As Big Coal author Jeff Goodell has noted, coal — and our dependence on it — isn’t going away any time soon. Yet as Rod Dreher frequently argues in these parts, conservatism properly understood recognizes limits and counts costs. Moving away from coal is painful — but so, in a different way, is the burning of it.
Unless one discounts the reality of deaths by particulate matter and believes global warming is little more than a hoax, it seems to me that the slow transition away from coal is a rational choice.
I will the old miss powerhouse, though.