Opinion » Note

Burned Out on Coal

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A few years back I was sitting in a conference center listening to a bunch of energy experts talking about the future of coal. They all seemed to agree that coal was the least preferable source of power on Earth, but we're stuck with it for some reason. "Every time a light gets switched on, it means somewhere coal is being burned," shrugged one of the experts.

That statement stuck in my mind--making me extra guilty for leaving lights on in unused rooms--but not as much for the content as the subtext. The suggestion was that coal is so engrained in our energy consumption practices (let's go ahead and call it what it is: the energy industry) that no matter what we do, it's still going to be a part of activities as mundane as turning on the bathroom light.

At the same time as we're inundated with "go green" initiatives and encouraged--very often by our own utilities--to save energy, we have billionaires like Warren Buffett, who should know better, pushing as hard as he can to ship the lowest grade coal not only through our communities, but to China and India, where it will be burned with absolute disregard for any after effects.

And let's not forget our own Idaho Transportation Department, which is all too eager to open Idaho's most scenic roadways to heavy loads en route to the Alberta oil sands--even as those shipments have been shut down by a federal judge.

This week, freelancer Matt Furber takes a look at Idaho Power's continued reliance on king coal--a crutch that has continued despite a national moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants and widespread opposition to anything (be it mega-loads or rail shipments) having to do with fueling the hydrocarbon beast.

Idahoans have it good, though. As Idaho Power struggled to meet record-setting power usage this summer, it went to out-of-state coal plants to make up the difference. This summer, every time you turned on a light--or cranked up the AC--somewhere coal was being burned. Lucky for us, it wasn't in our backyard, but it was certainly in someone else's.

That's maybe what makes it so easy to fall into shrugging acceptance. We don't have to see coal dust stain our hillsides or cloud our skyline, and we don't have to stare down into the yawning pits out of which the resource is pulled.

We've heard all this before, of course, and it's starting to sound like a lot of hand-wringing. The fact remains that while ignorance might be bliss, happiness isn't everything.