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Editorial: Promises to prop up ailing coal industry will run counter to marketplace forces

President-elect Donald Trump promised during his campaign to bring back coal jobs, and has chosen a friend of the fossil fuel industry to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s bad news for America and for Buffalo, with one significant caveat: Turning the clock back would run counter to the market forces that are pushing for cleaner sources of energy.

Coal is a dying industry for that part of the country, just as steel was for the Rust Belt 40 years ago. Coal burning fouls the air and impairs the health of those who breathe the pollutants emitted. Controlling those emissions, as clean air laws require, is an expensive process and one that clean energy sources will eventually render obsolete.

But it’s not just coal. Consider gasoline and oil. They are, for now, essential to modern life, but our reliance on them has nourished regimes that produce terrorists bent on killing Americans by the thousands. It is in our national interest to reduce our reliance on fuels from those countries. It’s a security issue, not a partisan one.

Hydraulic fracturing, despite its faults – including a related and frightening increase in the number of earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma – has helped in that regard. The process for extracting fuel from shale has produced a glut of domestic oil and natural gas, lowering the price. That has helped reduce the demand for coal, but over the long term, the need is for different and cleaner sources of energy that cut both pollution and the associated risk to the planet’s climate.

In Buffalo, the direct risk of Trump’s embrace of the fossil fuel industry is to the new, high-tech economy that will be delivered by SolarCity’s plant in South Buffalo. Clean energy may come from many sources, some of them perhaps as yet undiscovered, but solar is already here. Costs are beginning to fall and the plant rising at a bend in the Buffalo River includes a research and development component that should keep it relevant for decades to come.

But the plant’s success depends, to some significant extent, on the 30 percent federal investment tax credit on solar energy projects. This is not yet a mature industry; it requires subsidies that not only encourage its development but will further help to wean the country off of coal and even natural gas as energy sources.

That, in the end, is the distinction between the threat posed by Trump’s tilt toward the fossil fuel industry and the forward direction that markets are already taking. Fossil fuels remain important to American life, but like rotary phones, piston engine propeller aircraft and rabbit ears, they are the residue of 20th century technology.

Sixteen years into the 21st century, it is important to look ahead and plan, as best as possible, for a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. Whatever direction the Trump administration takes, the markets are already speaking. There is money to be made in clean energy, and it’s going to happen. All the government can do is slow it down or help it along.

Changing economies create winners and losers. For decades, Buffalo was among the latter; it is only now starting to come back.

Trump’s mission should be to help coal country and other workers in the fossil fuel industry to transition into something more reliable and long-lasting. That’s the best thing he can do for those worried people. Promising them a return to the 1950s can only delay the better days they seek.

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