The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.
This past week, a story entitled “As energy sources shift, consequences of coal dependence reach near and far” that appeared in The Student last December won the 2016 first place Pinnacle Award for Best Feature Story as awarded by the College Media Association. This story concerned the use of fossil fuels, both in our larger national society and in the Miami community.
It details several facts about Miami’s use of coal to produce electricity for all of its services. At the time the article was written, Miami had about 7,000 tons of coal stocked up in a storage pile off Route 73, enough to run the university for three months, kept in case of emergency. Though, as reported, “Miami made a commitment to stop burning coal in its old steam plant, located behind Peabody Hall, by 2025.”
The story not only delved into the impact that the coal industry has had on Miami, but also on the coal regions within Ohio and West Virginia. Additionally, it focused on both the environmental impacts of coal mining and use, as well as the economic impact on those that produce and consume the fuel.
This issue, though, is far from settled and still demands our attention nine months later.
Coal has been and continues to be a dominant source of fuel as well as a lucrative enterprise in American industry and society as a whole — it is responsible for the production of 39 percent of U.S. electricity.
Yet, one of the most important takeaways from the article is the fact that the domination of electricity production is waning. In the wake of increased fracking in petroleum wells around this region and other regions of the country, natural gas has become a cheaper alternative to coal in terms of energy production for many different consumers across many different industries.
This development, the increased use of natural gas over that of coal, is one that we must understand if we are to understand the energy question as a whole. Though pressure from environmentally conscious interest groups and social pushes for greener energy have contributed to the desire to wean our society off of coal, we must note that economic factors have led consumers towards alternatives.
Though the development of fracking brings questions of its own with regards to the environment, the production of natural gas has yet to see the mass devastation to the ecosystem that certain regions in West Virginia and other states have seen in their coal mining and refining operations.
Additionally, as far as climate change goes, natural gas is environmentally superior to coal, emitting 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as compared to coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
However, in no way could anyone say with veracity that the issue of electricity production has been solved. Natural gas presents its own set of environmental issues, even excluding those of fracking.
Moreover, as it is also a fossil fuel, it too is unsustainable in the long run. As with most economic choices, the choice between coal and its alternatives is a tradeoff, and it’s one that we have to face as a society on both the national level and the local level here at Miami.
Miami’s initiative to become coal free is a positive one, but it holds no water if we, at the individual level, do not agree to continue pursuing even cleaner energy moving forward. Everyone has to be willing to participate in the discussion and, more importantly, the execution of developing and shifting to green alternatives.
We recognize the economic importance of coal to certain communities and industries, especially in our section of the country. However, we would like to remind readers of the truth that the shift away from coal has to date been more of an economic decision than an environmental one (and anyone touting the so called “War on Coal” in this country should especially be notified of this fact).
Industries change, and as we face temperatures that will get into the high 70s in the first week of November, we should embrace the long term environmental and existential benefits of of this tradeoff over the short term detriments.
In the future, the move away from coal — and hopefully fossil fuels entirely — will perhaps be a compromise between the free market and the proven legitimacy of environmental threats, as it is today.
We know that this change will not come overnight and will take advancements in technology and perhaps even lifestyle, but that is a change we must pursue for the sake of our posterity. In time, this shift will be seen as no less inevitable than the agricultural shift from oxen to tractors.