The true inconvenient truth: Coal saves and improves lives

And we'll rely on it for decades

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The recent Post-Gazette series on air quality in our region, "Mapping Mortality," reminds me of the Mark Twain statement "It's not what you don't know that kills you; it's what you know for sure that ain't true."

The idea is captured best by the centuries-old oath sworn by any American who testifies in a court of law -- "the truth" is insufficient to understanding an issue; "the whole truth" is required.

The whole truth is that there is no such thing as "emissions-free" energy.

The simple-minded "energy vs. the environment" debate, in which some in our country today are foolishly stuck, is a false choice. Only an "energy and the environment" strategy makes both moral and practical sense.

Energy is critical to human progress. Study after study proves that access to affordable electricity is a driving factor in human well-being. With such access, life expectancy rises and nutrition, health and educational levels all increase. But today, more than 1.5 billion people -- equivalent to the current population of Pennsylvania nearly 120 times over -- do not own a light bulb.

If these men, women and children are to live lives less harsh, brutal and short, and the rest of humankind, including those of us right here at home in southwestern Pennsylvania, are to lead our best possible lives, energy use is going to have to continue to grow dramatically.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that even 20 years from now the mix of sources the world uses to meet these ever larger energy needs will be essentially identical to the mix used today. It will be, because it must be, a mix dominated by coal and natural gas.

Twenty years from now, the world will still depend on carbon-based energy. Public policy designed to fundamentally and dramatically change that equation will only lock today's poorest people in the prison of their poverty while disrupting and endangering the prosperity of those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world.

To be clear, we are not at cross-purposes with reasonable efforts to increase the use of wind, solar and other alternative sources of energy. But this is where the difference between "the truth" and "the whole truth" becomes so crucial.

The greatest crisis, and yet the greatest opportunity our generation faces, is not an environmental crisis that may occur at the end of this century but the human crisis caused by energy poverty. We need to respond to that crisis by improving the access of the poor and impoverished, particularly those in Third World countries, to affordable, reliable and abundant sources of energy.

Each year, more than 1.5 million people lose their lives to the effects of energy poverty. Indeed, there is a direct relationship between the absence of adequate energy and many quality-of-life indicators. Individuals with access to reliable, affordable energy live longer, healthier lives.

To that end, coal is not only the primary source of the world's power today but also is the world's fastest-growing fuel. Coal use expanded nearly 50 percent in just the last decade.

Why? Simply because coal is the only sustainable fuel with the scale to meet the primary energy needs of the world's growing population and, hopefully and thankfully, of growing economies.

If we simplify the debate over energy policy into the false choice of "energy vs. the environment" we run the risk of keeping billions of humans literally in the dark, whose poverty hurts them as much as it would hurt us. We also threaten to turn out the lights on our own quality of life and economic progress.

When one looks at all the facts and maps mortality and morbidity more broadly and fully, one must conclude that energy is a human right as surely as is free speech -- and coal remains an indispensable printing press by which that right is expressed.

J. Brett Harvey is CEO of CONSOL Energy Inc.


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