Coal today may seem of little relevance to many residents of New York City or other American urban centers. It long ago ceased to fuel the furnaces of their homes and apartment buildings in winter.
But long after it disappeared from the uses most visible to city dwellers, coal is still the critical fuel behind the everyday functions of their lives. Across the U.S. for more than a century, coal has remained quietly at work -- providing in recent years nearly half the electricity that lights urban buildings and streets, keeps air conditioners humming on hot days and energizes computers and TVs to inform and entertain. Electricity generated with coal powers the factories that produce all manner of food, clothing, cars and other goods for Americans everywhere.
Coal maintains that role with good reason. It is America's most abundant energy resource; our coal reserves are the world's largest, sufficient to last more than 250 years. That abundance makes coal affordable; over the decades its price has been far more stable that of another major power generation fuel, natural gas. And way below costs those promising but still-unproven resources, solar and wind power.
Meanwhile, science has made coal a much cleaner fuel. Utilities' use of coal for power generation has jumped more than 180 percent since 1970 but emissions from those plants have plummeted 75 percent. And the march of technology promises even cleaner coal in the years ahead.
Apparently, all those facts have escaped the attention of New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This month, he marshaled 90 U.S. mayors behind a campaign of misinformation that could in short order end the use of coal for power generation -- and in doing so wipe out America's historic coal industry.
In a letter to the EPA Administrator, Bloomberg and his fellow mayors expressed strong support for new air quality regulations that will shut down coal fired power generation on the grounds that coal is too "dirty" and must immediately be replaced with generation fueled by natural gas, solar and wind power.
Joining Mayor Bloomberg on the letter were a successor of mine as Mayor of Cincinnati, Mark Mallory, two other Ohio mayors (Michael Coleman of Columbus and Bruce Rinker of Mayfield Village), the senior elected officials of big cities from Atlanta to Boston Chicago, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles, and the chief executives of smaller but staunchly "progressive" strongholds such as Burlington, Vermont, Takoma Park, Maryland, Maui County, Hawaii, and Decatur, Georgia.
With one stroke of the pen, all wrote off the fuel that has helped make possible a century of economic growth in their cities. They accepted the higher electric rates that utility executives say are certainly on the way as today's historically low natural gas prices zoom upward while wind and solar power, for the foreseeable future, remain very expensive.
The mayors also agreed, in signing that letter, to condemn the jobs of 555,000 Americans who mine, transport, market and utilize coal, along with their combined annual income of $36.3 billion.
All of this comes less than a year after Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to donate $50 million to the Sierra Club to support its nationwide campaign to eliminate coal-fired power plants.
On many levels, I have respect and admiration for Mayor Bloomberg. Elected in the dark days just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he helped rebuild the city both physically and emotionally. In that and other roles he has followed a course of pragmatic progressivism, addressing public concerns on issues with a common-sense approach that recognizes economic realities.
So I am surprised and very disappointed that he would lead his mayoral colleagues in demonizing a valuable American energy resource, assuring higher utility bills for Americans still strapped by a slow economic recovery, and wiping out one of our oldest industries.
My personal commitment to cleaning up and protecting our environment runs deep. I'm proud of the progress America has made these past 40 years from a land of smoggy skylines and dead rivers to one that is getting cleaner by the day.
But I also understand that our environmental ideals must be balanced with recognition of our economic challenges, both short- and long-term. We can't build a stronger economy and create the millions of jobs we need if we're paying sharply higher utility bills and killing a half million good-paying jobs in the process.
Numerous polls show that the majority of Americans share that pragmatism. I thought Michael Bloomberg was among them, until I saw that letter to the EPA Administrator.