Will West Virginia Mine Disaster Affect National Energy Debate?

As the scene in West Virginia becomes more dire—and as the death toll, now at 25, continues to rise—Washington has taken note. Dozens of lawmakers have offered condolences and West Virgina Rep. Nick Rahall has called for a full investigation into what happened. This morning, at a post-Easter prayer breakfast, President Obama offered the state any assistance the federal government could offer.

It’s a relevant topic on Capitol Hill, which stands ready to take up energy security next on its docket. But that raises the question: will such a fresh reminder of the dangers of coal mining influence the nation's energy debate, underscoring the imperative to move beyond coal?

The answer is probably not. "This is a mining accident," says Bill Wicker, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee. "This issue involves the health and safety of our miners, not our energy future."

Coal is the one fuel that powers most of what we do. It accounts for about 45 percent of American power consumption, and as demand for power increases while the cost of alternatives (wind, solar, biofuels) remains high, coal is poised to play a bigger, not smaller, role in our energy landscape. To put it more crassly, the cost of coal is just too cheap. A kilowatt hour of coal power costs about $0.04, less than a third of renewables.

When we talk about costs, safety is rarely monetized in full by companies, let alone passed on to the consumer. With accidents like what happened in West Virginia and over the past decade in Utah and Alabama, the full cost of coal power should probably rise. But remember, the reason the country's energy portfolio is on trial is because of an evasive pursuit of "energy security" and the need to make energy more sustainable and affordable. The reason safety isn't included is because accidents—from mine cave-ins to oil-rig deaths—don’t happen often enough for safety to become a formidable factor in the national discussion on our energy future. What's more, the playing field isn't all that tilted. Despite a bad week for coal miners, wind has also been fatal—14 men were killed working with wind energy in the mid-'90s, and more since, according to wind-industry analyst Paul Gipe. Not to mention the risks posed by nuclear. While most sectors have undergone regulation over the past few years to root out dangerous components, the reality is that all energy sectors are still risky in many ways.

Instead of safety, the most significant considerations for an energy revolution are environmental factors. Mercury contamination and global carbon cuts are what fuels discussions at bipartisan meetings on Capitol Hill. Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are united behind a measure to stop climate change and encourage technical innovation in energy research. They characterize the problem as a common evil, that if we don't act on climate change or stabilize dangerous pH levels caused by mercury runoff that lead to acid rain, the earth—and, by extension, humanity—won't be able to recover. But nowhere in their talking points is a push for safety in energy production. Until it is, the horrific accident is West Virginia will continue to be seen as just that: a horrific accident. And not, in any meaningful way, a game changer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that coal accounts for 49 percent of American energy. The correct number is about 45 percent.

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