Who Is Morally Accountable for Coal?

I have been struggling with this rather ominous topic and decided to make a statement that might contribute to the public discussion from an angle not always considered, so I sent the message below, reflecting my UU values (especially “practical interdependence”), to PSE and local media…


Who Is Morally Accountable for Coal?

An Open Letter to the Leader of Puget Sound Energy

Dear Kimberly Harris (President and CEO of PSE),

Thank you again for coming last month to engage with some of us on local and regional challenges as they relate to your company (“Community Energy Discussion,” 9/18 at IslandWood). As moderator for the intriguing panel that featured you and representatives of four other relevant organizations, I was focused then on facilitation. My reflections since that evening, however, have centered on your response to concerns about coal as a fuel source PSE uses to generate electricity.

When confronted with a laundry list of ongoing human and environmental ills associated with coal production at the Colstrip power plant, you declared that coal was a “least cost” resource, calling it the cheapest of available energy assets for PSE to utilize. I have trouble reconciling this statement with a moral understanding of our current global context.

By accepting the current price structure of coal, you disregard and literally discount the visible, if uncomfortable truths about Colstrip and the adverse effects of open strip mining, as well as other regional methods of extraction, such as mountain top removal in and around West Virginia.

The particulars are well documented elsewhere; I’ll just note another bottom line—that every $1 of electricity from coal does $2 in damages to our country and our bodies (American Economic Review). I found your rationale for why PSE still supports any aspect of this production to be less than convincing, as the worsening blight of coal attaches to you in uncomplimentary ways. I believe it is a “least cost resource” only if one is outfitted with moral blinders.

Of course, all consumers are complicit with our inordinate demand for power, and we had better come to grips with how truly, ultimately expensive our energy habits are. I want to see PSE as an influential leader in moving our whole culture toward greener energy use, but the good that your company already does in that direction, which I heartily appreciate, is potentially all but negated by this myopic inclusion of coal in your mix of fuel sources.

The woefully torpid attitude of our federal governmental toward a realistically sustainable future with fewer environmental pollutants and a lower carbon footprint, suggests that future generations will judge us all as irresponsibly dangerous and indulgent. Meanwhile, one related arena in which legislators have not been inactive is the (heavily lobbied) price support provided to keep coal under-regulated and its market cost artificially, inexcusably, immorally low.

If PSE (and consumers, of course) were truly accountable for the inefficiencies and damage that haunt this chain of production, coal would no doubt be rightfully seen as the “high cost” resource it actually is, and you would not be supporting its harsh impact on our world. We need you to be ahead of this curve, not resisting it.

Just because coal is there in the ground does not give anyone moral justification to pull it out and burn it, especially when the effects of this process are so obviously destructive and unhealthy, especially when short-sighted, artificial price props limit incentives for development of more renewable energy sources, especially when virtually all scientists are issuing severe warnings about climate disruption caused largely by the increasing use of carbon.

I am reminded of the persuasive reason homeowners usually want to reduce obvious energy waste before undertaking more costly upgrades: it is wiser to first go after “low-hanging fruit.” In this case, wisdom and moral leadership from our utility would include jettisoning any dependence on the foul use of that black fruit of the earth. I challenge and urge you to do so with clear-eyed vision and haste, so we can all more creatively craft a future beyond coal.

Respectfully and hopefully, Rev. Jaco ten Hove, co-minister of Cedars Unitarian Universalist Church and Steering Committee member of Positive Energy (Bainbridge Alliance for Clean Power), although the views expressed in this statement are my own.

2 Comments On “Who Is Morally Accountable for Coal?”

  1. Diana Peters

    Well said, Jaco.

  2. Alan Miller

    Excellently done, Jaco! Now if we could only somehow get him to read it. I am afraid it will take a radical change of heart akin to religious conversion. But we live in hope.

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