[UPDATE: With the benefit of a little more time to reflect and with the help of a few angels on my shoulder, I've come to realize that my criticism of Tim Huber was over the top. While I believe that my critique of the content of the AP story was valid, there are more respectful and less polemical ways to make the point. My apologies to Tim Huber]
OK, so I made the bit up about there being a Peeew-litzer prize for execrable reporting, but if there were such a prize, AP business reporter Tim Huber would be a top candidate.
Yesterday, Huber broke a story based on a leaked draft of an environmental impact statement that is part of the Office of Surface Mining’s rule-making process for the “Stream Protection Rule.” This rule would replace the “Stream Buffer Zone” rule that was gutted in late 2008 in an 11th hour giveaway to the coal industry by the departing Bush Administration. The impact and clear intent of Bush’s change to this rule was to make it easier for coal companies to conduct mountaintop removal mining operations in Appalachia.
The lead of the AP story went as follows:
The Obama administration’s own experts estimate their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.
Wow, that sounds pretty bad — particularly the day after the President delivered a State of the Union address that laid out a broad plan for creating jobs and supporting American businesses. Of course, given that the leaked document is not available for public scrutiny, you might think that Huber would say a little something about what assumptions went into this calculation of job losses — perhaps even provide a little context about how they were calculated. What baseline assumptions were these “eliminated” jobs compared to? Did the agency use figures for say, 2008 when coal production was at an all time high, or did they compare their impacts to government estimates of future production? This is important because not only has coal production dropped by 10% since 2008, but recent EIA projections are that coal production will drop further in coming years and won’t return to 2008 levels until 2025.
Aside from “eliminating” jobs in the coal industry, would OSM’s rule perhaps also create jobs in other industries that would presumably replace demand for the “slashed” coal production? Was the economic analysis done by OSM mining experts, or did they work with the Energy Information Administration, which has models to address these sorts of questions in the context of overall US energy markets?
Without additional context, there’s no way to understand what these numbers actually mean. By putting them out there in sensationalist terms without any way for anyone else to see the context and assumptions that went into them, Huber has done an enormous disservice to entire debate about protecting streams from the impacts of coal mining. And while reporting on leaked documents has a long and proud tradition, isn’t there some obligation to provide essential information needed to understand what’s reported about them?
Of course, it seems that there were people outside federal and state agencies that already had their hands on the secret draft document because Huber provided a quote from the National Mining Association that could only have been made if they had already analyzed the numbers (wonder who leaked it to Huber?). Worse, Huber reported the NMA’s response without even contacting any supporters of a strong Stream Protection Rule to see if there might be different views on those numbers.
So how would mountaintop removal opponents have responded if they’d had the chance?
I imagine if Huber had asked people impacted by mountaintop removal mines above their homes they would have said that there is no economic justification whatsoever for the continued destruction of Appalachian mountains, streams and communities by coal companies. As my friend Bo Webb at Coal River Mountain Watch told the Charlotte Observer when asked about Duke Energy’s machinations over whether eliminating mountaintop removal coal purchases would be economical:
“Real people that live in communities beneath mountaintop removal sites in southern West Virginia are paying the heavy, hidden costs of coal with their health and lives. An energy company that purchases mountaintop-removal coal is taking advantage of a corrupt regulatory system that allows coal companies like Massey Energy to eliminate entire Appalachian mountains, poison its water and kill its people.”
If Huber had asked my buddy JW at Appalachian Voices he might have pointed out that the coal industry is already in decline, particularly in Appalachia. If jobs are going to be eliminated anyway, why would we want to preserve jobs at mines that destroy streams over jobs that don’t? When I asked him about it, JW, who’s about to have his first child, told me:
“When my daughter enters the workforce, she can either have A) no coal jobs and no streams or B) no coal jobs and streams. We’ll take B please.”
And if I’d been asked? Well, since Huber isn’t prepared to share the leaked document he’s reporting on, it’s tough to get too specific. But even in the unlikely case that OSM did a comprehensive economic study and found that 7,000 jobs really would just vanish off the employment map, let’s put that number in perspective. If those surface mining jobs were eliminated over a 5 year period as existing permits expire, the challenge for legislators like Senator Manchin would be to find a way to create an additional 1,400 non-mining jobs or so per year (perhaps more, as mining jobs pay well) in order to rein in the wholesale destruction of streams in Appalachia by mountaintop removal mining and the pollution of streams across the country with mine waste.
And it’s not like it takes a lot of creative thinking to figure out how those jobs could be replaced: the Appalachian Regional Commission released a study and blueprint for how 15,000 jobs per year could be created in Appalachia every year for the next five years in energy efficiency — if policy-makers would make fairly modest investments in policies to stimulate the creation of those jobs. As a West Virginian who commented on the story at the Charleston Gazette website pointed out,
“It’s called ‘progress.’ We don’t use whale oil for light anymore do we?”
No we don’t. And I bet lot of jobs were lost in the whaling industry after Edison invented the light bulb along with coal-based electricity generation technologies… was that bad for society over the past century?
I recently heard a pretty smart guy say:
“Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age… So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”
We should listen to him.