Monday, December 26, 2022

Few states are identified more strongly with a natural resource than is West Virginia. Fifty-three of its 55 counties are underlain with 62 separate veins of coal that has been mined since 1810 (1), more than a half-century before the state was pried away from Confederate Virginia by pro-Union factions and was recognized by Congress and President Lincoln.

The late John Prine sang movingly about the environmental destruction caused by coal mining in his song, "Paradise"

The plant remains petrified by heat and pressure and the people charged with extracting them from billion-year-old mountains were made the soul of West Virginia. The coal helped heat and electrify the country, win two world wars, and produce steel in nearby Pittsburgh and automobiles in Detroit.

Employment in West Virginia coal mining likely peaked around 1950, when 125,000 miners comprised 6.25% of the state’s population of 2 million (2). Since then, the state’s population has dropped by 300,000 while the number of miners has declined more than 90% to 11,400 in 2021, barely more than 0.5% of West Virginians (3). West Virginia miners now make up about the same percentage of their state’s population as Iowa bartenders do theirs.

The industry has long controlled the state’s politics, and still largely does even though the writing on coal’s wall has been there so long that barely a smudge remains. Even a U.S. president declaring it ‘beautiful and clean’ (4) was unable to breath fire into coal’s dying ember. Having finished building coal’s pine box, natural gas has handed over the hammer and coffin nails to solar and wind. The state still clings to past glory, however, generating about 90% of its electricity with rock carbon, compared to about 20% nationwide (5). Maybe not surprisingly, West Virginians pay a lot for electricity and rates are increasing five times faster there than the rest of the country (5).

In his book The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution, James Van Nostrand (6) explains how the state’s politicians prioritized the coal industry ahead of economic and environmental considerations. Van Nostrand: “They chose not to manage the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels but focus instead on blaming the coal industry’s demise on the federal government and environmental regulations.” The coal ‘trap’ is the industry’s grip on the state’s identity; West Virginia *is* coal and vice versa, a convenient arrangement for industry titans but a millstone around the neck of the state’s future and health of the citizenry. “Despite the transformation to natural gas and renewables that was occurring in the energy industry across the U.S., West Virginia political leaders doubled down on coal.”

Here in Iowa of course, we have the Midwestern version of commodity-controlled politics coddling a resource extraction arguably as environmentally destructive as coal mining, that being corn production, of which 60% is made into fuel ethanol. And like Van Nostrand’s West Virginia, we also like to blame the federal government for holding back the industry, even though it would likely vaporize like everclear in a hot skillet without the feds’ Renewable Fuel Standard. Here’s Iowa’s governor Kim Reynolds in February: “Charging stations while ignoring a readily-available renewable energy source grown right here in IA. This is why we need increased access to E15.” This was in response to the Biden Administration announcing that the federal government would provide $51 million for electric car charging stations in Iowa (7).

As ‘declining demand for liquid fuel’ is being written on every wall from Rock Valley to Mount Pleasant, the corn ethanol industry is feverishly trying to squeeze its gass into size carbon-zero skinny jeans that will make science-illiterate politicians and the regulators at EPA drool like an Iowa City undergrad male surveying the denim spandex landscape on a Field House Friday night (Field House in this case being one of many downtown watering hole habitats where Napervilleus westdesmoinesii conduct their mating rituals). A couple of weeks ago, the president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) sent a letter to Iowa legislators pleading, pleading I tell you, for fair and equitable treatment from Iowa’s state government for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies, which would intercept ethanol plant CO2 and pipe it to the hinterlands. An industry where production of the raw material (corn) is subsidized and indemnified by the public, and whose pollution is unregulated, and whose final product is forced into consumer gas tanks, is demanding fair and equitable treatment. Rich old white guys. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em. Of course, they expect some form of this equation will need to fit into their CCS algorithm: [Fair + Equitable]=[Your money + Your water quality]. Go ahead and rub your temples now.    

IRFA CEO Monte Shaw is on the record saying this is a “life or death” issue for the industry (8). It goes without saying that the IRFA letter focuses on the magic word JOBS and says Iowa corn ethanol generates about 46,000 of them, a number that must include everything from the clerks at Theisens and Fleet Farm selling tax free wild bird seed to Mrs. Farmer using Harold’s LLC account, to the Amazon employees processing orders for the “I Did That” Joe Biden stickers affixed to every gas pump in Iowa. Retired ISU economist Dave Swenson figures the number is closer to 7000, which is about 1500 shy of the number of Iowa bartenders. (Unapologetically using bartenders as a marker once again here.)

IRFA also attached a public comment to the legislative letter titled “Carbon Capture and Sequestration by Iowa Ethanol Plants, Public Comments Prepared by Iowa Renewable Fuels Assocation, August 24, 2022.” This 3-page literary masterpiece makes an artful (just kidding) allegory of the recorded video transition from Beta to VHS with a transition from dirty old corn ethanol to new and beautiful clean corn ethanol, scrubbed up with a little CCS. The Beta/VHS thing should be low hanging fruit for me here, but it’s so outdated that only someone as old as the average Iowa farmer (60) is likely to understand it, so why bother. All I can say is that someone at IRFA must have fond memories of renting Animal House and a VCR from Vern and Vera's Video Vault back in the day.

The curious thing to me about the public comment document is that it practically begs the reader to cling to their Climate Change Denialism (CCD), which of course is pretty common amongst the document’s target audience: conservatives that control Iowa government and Iowa farmers, in many cases one in the same. To wit, and I quote: IRFA is not asking anyone to “agree” with these low carbon policies. Curious use of quotation marks. So, without climate change and low carbon policies, what rationale do we have for CCS? Well, to allow millionaires to keep on millionairing at the expense of the public’s pocketbook and natural environment, that’s what.

King Coal, Joe Manchin (D-WV), recently tweeted that Form Energy will build a $760 million battery manufacturing plant in Hancock County, WV. Manchin said that “Form Energy’s new manufacturing plant will bring clean and innovative energy technologies to West Virginia and put to good use the vast skills of our people to help ensure our country’s energy security.” If you don’t know, the 75-year-old senator has made a fortune from selling coal (9) and is unlikely to suffer in any way from climate change or climate policy. One has to wonder if he and the state’s other politicians (71-year-old Republican Governor Jim Justice is worth $513 million and was born into the coal business) had years ago gotten the state out from under the rotting body of coal and out in front of the renewable energy industry, West Virginia might not have the 4th-worst poverty rate, 4th-worst infant mortality rate, and the 2nd-lowest life expectancy of the 50 states. But, the politicians made their millions and that’s what matters apparently.

As I have pointed out many times prior and here again today, Iowa has a West Virginia-like bipartisan infatuation with ethanol, with leaders from both parties pledging allegiance and many (and many connected to them) earning or padding their living from it. We do have a leg up on West Virginia in that we have a 20-year foothold in real renewable energy: wind. More than half of our electricity is generated by it and so we have experience and a portfolio to help guide future decisions. Still, our physical environment is horribly scarred by what is essentially luxury economics, e.g. crop production on elite soils over a vast land area that generates little common good. Why do we cling to this? The potential demise of ethanol presents the best opportunity the state HAS EVER HAD to transform its water quality and the rest of the natural environment.

That all being said, the smart money is definitely on the Ethanolians and their future pipe-laying enablers, at least for another generation or so. Maybe someday an 80-year-old U.S. Senator Zach Wahls or Rob Sand or Pat Grassley will declare on social media that the very last internal combustion engine capable of burning corn ethanol has died, and Iowa is finally ready to move on. Until that time, keep rubbing your temples.

  1. Mining in West Virginia: A Capsule History. West Virginia Office of MHS&T.
  2. McGehee, S. A History of Coal in West Virginia. Friends of Coal.
  3. Garside, M. Coal mining employment in West Virginia, 2011-2021. Statista.
  4. The Hollywood Reporter. Trump: We have ended the war on beautiful clean coal.
  5. Kirk, S. West Virginia: Most coal reliant state struggles amid green power push. 12WBOY.
  6. Jolly, J. WVU law professor explores how West Virginia is missing the clean energy revolution. West Virginia College of Law, September 9, 2022.
  7. KCCI. Iowa to receive $51M for new electric vehicle charging stations. February 10, 2022.
  8. Jordan, E. Would CO2 pipelines be ‘life or death’ for Iowa’s ethanol industry? Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 7, 2022.
  9. Kranish, M. and Phillips, A. Manchin cites a blind trust to justify climate votes. But much income from his family’s coal company isn’t covered. Washington Post, December 13, 2021.