This is the latest installment of Holly’s column ”Seeing Green”
Most of my fieldwork in New Zealand took me inland, up to the mountains alongside the spectacular route traced by the TranzAlpine rail line. The route is popular among tourists for its views of the Southern Alps: each morning, a ten-car passenger train studded with viewing platforms and café cars winds its way slowly through the passes on the East-West traverse.
Yet in all our to-ing and fro-ing between field sites and our home base, my field team and I spotted only two such sightseeing tours. But we saw the sleek black outlines of coal trains almost daily.
Dozens of cars long, the industrial trains freight 70-million-year-old coal mined on the West Coast to shipping ports on the East. Given that New Zealand gets 6% of its electricity from coal-fired plants, I initially assumed the trainloads were destined for local (or at least, national) use.
“Actually, no,” Kathrin, the only Kiwi among us, said. “It’s headed to China and Japan; we only burn the cheap, dirty stuff here.”
Apparently, New Zealand’s bituminous coal is some of the best in the world. Its lack of impurities means it burns hot and clean, just the stuff for steel mills in foreign lands. In today’s globalized world, the laws of economics say it’s best to sell your high quality coal on the international market and buy someone else’s lower grade stuff for home use.
Like most people occasionally dismayed by the degree to which money runs the world, I was just about as disconcerted to hear Kathrin’s statement as she was to make it. And unlike me, Kathrin spent years living on New Zealand’s West Coast, and knew all too much about the ecosystems threatened by coal mining.
Similarly to controversial recent mining in the United States, New Zealand’s industry favors open-cast mines, which dynamite off vegetation, topsoil, and up to 400 feet of rock to expose near-surface coal seams.
As someone made rather squeamish by stories of trapped miners and cave-ins, I admit I’d much rather work in an open-cast mine. But they sure are hell on the environment – there’s a reason we’ve coined the term “mountaintop removal” for coal mining’s latest incarnation.
At least New Zealand seems to have a decent handle on environmental restoration. Apparently the (largely government-owned) mining firms take their cleanup responsibilities seriously, likely a response to the Kiwi culture of environmental stewardship. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s all smooth sailing for the unique snail and beetle populations often displaced by mining efforts.
Meanwhile, back home in the USA, whatever the claims of the mining company lawyers, no one seems too pleased with the outcome. Mountaintop mines may generate jobs, but they also literally turn mountains into dust. And once that’s done, it’s simply impossible to restore the wildlife habitat, local hydrology, or iconic views of someone’s childhood.
Doubtless, that’s why so many people have added their voices to campaigns against strip mines and mountaintop removal. For some, it’s about protesting a local eyesore or demanding compensation for a polluted water supply. For others, it’s about protecting nature or reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change. For everyone who knows the story, it’s deeply personal.
But in the end, it will come down to the role of economics, and the fundamental question we’ll all have to wrestle with as climate change accelerates and fuel prices rise.
How far will we let money drive us?
According to most estimates, the United States has enough coal in the ground to last through this century – longer, depending on who you ask. We also have the largest proven coal reserves in the world, a reassuring piece of knowledge for those of us worried about the fossil fuel aspects of energy security.
The thing is, getting coal from our backyard means putting mines in our backyard. It means blowing apart mountains, killing off entire populations of endangered species, and changing ecosystems in irreversible ways.
We’re already realizing how little we want to live with those consequences.
So maybe, just maybe, the local damage of coal mining will do what the distant downsides of coal burning cannot. Maybe we’ll decide that some things are better left in the ground.