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ANALYSIS The heat is on Global warming may have
Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Sunday, November 30, 1997
Byline: Ken Ward Jr.
SUNDAY GAZETTE-MAIL Thousands of West Virginia miners will go to work this week to help dig the coal that provides half of the country's electricity.
At the same time, on the other side of the world in Japan, diplomats, scientists and elected officials from 160 nations will make decisions that could determine if many of those miners lose their jobs.
World leaders will gather in Kyoto, Japan, Monday for a 10-day summit to try to come up with a plan to curb pollutants that cause global warming.
Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most notorious of the greenhouse gases. Too much of it traps heat near the Earth, studies show. It warms the planet and otherwise tinkers with the climate system.
If greenhouse emissions aren't scaled back, scientists say, people around the world will face problems that range from bigger blizzards to searing droughts, from flooded coastal regions to freak storms in the mountains and plains.
Here in West Virginia, political leaders, industry and labor worry that the cure could be just as bad, or worse, than the disease.
"It's a work-to-welfare program for West Virginia," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Even a moderate global climate treaty could cut U.S. coal consumption in half over the next dozen years, according to some estimates. By 2020, coal use could drop to one-quarter of the current demand, according to those estimates.
More than 50,000 of the 90,000 coal miners in the United States could lose their jobs in the next 25 years, according to projections published by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
No one knows how many of West Virginia's roughly 25,000 miners would be put out of work. But the cost of hauling cheap coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin is dropping steadily. Eastern coal would probably be hardest hit by decreasing coal demand, industry officials say.
Environmentalists offer little to ease coalfield concerns. Most admit that they believe one long-term goal of any rational climate- change policy must be to make major cuts in coal burning.
"The costs are going to have to be something our society has to bear, because the costs of not doing something are so huge," said Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington-based group.
Dire predictions Those costs will land most heavily on West Virginia's coal miners, who have over the years watched their ranks dwindle as mines mechanized and new pollution rules were passed.
The treaty will also affect chemical plants, steel mills and other factories that rely on large amounts of cheap electricity. To a large extent, these heavy industries still dominate West Virginia's economy.
More than 17,000 jobs could be lost in West Virginia by 2005 if current global climate treaty proposals are approved, according to a study performed for the United Mine Workers union.
"West Virginia is not New Hampshire, which has a fairly substantial high-tech component," said Eugene Trisko, a Berkeley Springs lawyer and economist who studies climate-change policy for the UMW. "It's not Florida, where the economy is run on retired people.
"Because of the lack of diversity in West Virginia's economy, you would not expect that West Virginia would have an easier time adapting," he said.
Still, some studies suggest that if power plants became more efficient, they could keep burning coal. State-level discussions of global warming rarely include examination of these studies.
Industry and labor officials seem focused instead on trying to derail the treaty. No one talks much about how to minimize the harm to coal-mining communities or help miners find other jobs.
"I don't think anyone is looking at that," Raney said.
"That's why the UMWA is concerned.
"I hold out hope that, if it's properly structured and we have enough sense about us, that what we end up doing is committing money that is necessary to learn how to better use coal," Raney said.
Climate consensus When world leaders meet this week in Kyoto, they'll debate complicated views about carbon dioxide concentrations, computer models and scientific uncertainty. Underlying their disputes is a clear, broad scientific consensus about global climate change.
Normally, the climate is controlled by the long-term balance of energy between the Earth and its atmosphere.
But greenhouse gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, as well as clouds and small particles called aerosols, trap some heat in the lower part of the Earth's atmosphere.
Since the industrial revolution began in the 1750s, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 30 percent. In the last century, the average global temperature increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit.
A group of more than 2,000 scientists from across the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, blamed this temperature increase at least in part on human activity and concluded that the effects of climate change are likely to be bad.
"Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health, with significant loss of life," the IPCC said.
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world agreed to work to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.
They also agreed to try to limit the adverse economic impacts of efforts to stabilize greenhouse concentrations.
But policy makers haven't agreed on what that concentration should be.
Scientists aren't sure about that yet, either, and they may never be.
Today, the European Union wants to cut global greenhouse emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. Japan wants to reduce them to 5 percent below 1990 levels over the next 15 years.
During a major speech in late October, Clinton announced that the United States would support reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2012.
Treaty challenged Opponents of Clinton's plan, primarily in the coal and oil industries, argue that it would drive energy costs up and do severe damage to the U.S. economy.
Recent studies by three of the nation's best-known economic forecasting firms - WEFA Inc., DRI/McGraw Hill Inc. and Charles Rivers Associates - back up their concerns.
By 2010, the studies say, Clinton's proposals would cost more than 1 million U.S. jobs, add tens of billions of dollars to the nation's trade deficit, increase gasoline prices by as much as 50 cents a gallon, and nearly double electricity rates.
The WEFA study, "Global Warming: The Economic Cost of Early Action," though, projects a much smaller impact on West Virginia than the UMW's report.
West Virginia could lose 6,300 jobs under the WEFA projections, with a one-fifth drop in mining alone. But it's less than 1 percent of the state's total civilian work force of 800,000 people.
UMW President Cecil Roberts is also concerned that current global climate treaty proposals would send U.S. jobs overseas.
Some treaty supporters, including environmental groups, say the United States should take the lead in reducing its greenhouse emissions.
The United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, produces more than 20 percent of its greenhouse gases. Other nations are poorer and don't currently emit as much. They shouldn't be asked to do as much as soon, some say.
But Roberts says that if developing nations aren't required to cut back their greenhouse emissions, manufacturers will move American jobs to those nations. At the same time, increased emissions from developing nations will offset reductions in industrialized countries, meaning no progress toward stopping climate change, Roberts says.
"Until all nations are on board, I will continue to challenge the treaty because of its potentially devastating effect on America's economy and its workers," Roberts said in October.
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., co-authored a Senate resolution that said the United States should not sign any global warming treaty that does not include a schedule of mandated greenhouse emission reductions for developing nations. Any treaty signed by Clinton must be ratified by the Senate. Byrd's resolution passed 95-0.
Clinton said in October that he would not accept any treaty that did not include "meaningful participation by key developing countries." The problem is how meaningful participation ends up being defined.
Byrd said earlier this month that the president's stance was not enough.
"It appears that the differences now existing among the U.S., the developing world, Europe and other nations, may be too vast for a global agreement to be reached at Kyoto which would be approved by the Senate," Byrd said.
"I hope the administration, therefore, will move toward a Kyoto mandate rather than a partial treaty, which would establish a long-term architecture for a global treaty to be negotiated over the next one to three years," he said.
Byrd said the treaty should include, "specific, achievable emissions goals, an aggressive technological development program in cooperation with other nations, and a balanced, long-term plan which could be supported by the Senate." Efficient alternatives Briefing papers and World Wide Web pages from environmental groups and the Clinton administration trumpet explanations of how global warming can be stopped without ruining the economy.
Unfortunately, it's not clear whether any of these plans would help West Virginia much, at least in the short term.
For example, a detailed U.S. Department of Energy report issued in September concluded that "energy efficiencies and clean energy technologies" can reduce U.S. greenhouse emissions and save more money than they cost to implement.
But the study, conducted by five DOE laboratories and peer-reviewed by industry and academic experts, assumes most power plants will switch from coal to natural gas.
Some environmental groups, such as EDF, advocate a global system that would allow greenhouse emissions credits to be traded among nations, companies or localities.
A manufacturing plant that could reduce emissions cheaply could do so, and bank its emissions credits.
Those credits could then be traded to others - such as U.S. utilities that burn coal - that would have to pay more to reduce their emissions.
Supporters liken this program to the emissions trading program created under the 1990 Clean Air Act to limit sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants.
The problem, though, is that the sulfur dioxide trading program worked in part because there is low-sulfur coal that companies can burn to meet emissions limits. There is no such thing as low-carbon coal, so options for the trading program are limited.
Other global warming watchers, including some in the power-generation business, lean toward a program that lets companies get greenhouse emissions credits if they set aside greenhouse gas "sinks," such as forests, from development. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
American Electric Power, for example, was praised earlier this year by Vice President Al Gore for setting aside 5 million acres of Brazilian rain forest. AEP would be able to bank credit for the gases those trees absorb so it could keep burning coal at some of its plants.
Some experts say another possible answer is for power plants to simply become more efficient.
Most coal-burning plants waste two-thirds of the energy they produce.
According to an IPCC report, they could double their efficiency.
This might allow them to still burn coal, although much less coal, and emit fewer greenhouse gases.
No way out?
Even the most optimistic observers of the global warming debate don't suggest that the coal industry will survive a strong treaty without taking a big hit.
That's why labor groups such as the UMW and the AFL-CIO have begun following the global climate treaty process much more closely.
It's also why Clinton, in announcing the U.S. position in October, said he believes the nation has "a moral obligation to respond to those [dislocations] to help the workers and the enterprises affected." Trisko, the UMW lawyer, said the union hasn't gotten to the point of looking for ways to help miners put out of a job by the treaty. That process will come later, Trisko said, if and when a treaty is approved by the president and ratified by the Senate.
Eventually, Congress would have to write legislation to create whatever programs the United States uses to help, or force, industry to meet greenhouse emission limits. At that point, the mine workers and others would push for measures to help displaced workers.
But some in the industry say that process needs to start sooner.
Back in the 1950s, when legendary UMW President John L. Lewis became convinced mine mechanization was inevitable, Lewis brokered a deal. He agreed not to oppose mechanization in exchange for coal operators creating a much-lauded "cradle-to-grave" health care system for miners and their families. The program is still a model for worker health-care plans.
If international treaties to curb global warming are inevitable, as many experts believe they are, when will West Virginia and its leaders get to work on a compromise that will spare the coalfields some of the impacts?
"That's one of the problems," said Raney of the coal association. "I don't think we need to poor-mouth, but we need to get on with the business of dealing with this."