Gainesville Comes Clean on Mountaintop Removal?

mtr_2The City Commission of my hometown of Gainesville, Florida recently voted against using coal from mountaintop removal sites.  The controversy over mountaintop removal is well known in states like Kentucky and West Virginia.  On the one hand, it’s difficult to justify the environmental blight that mountaintop removal causes; the notion that the process creates “flatter, more useful land on top of the mountain” is laughable.  Mountaintop removal does create jobs in areas desperate for them.  It’s a time worn tale in Appalachia: does the short-term economic benefit outweigh the long-term desolation?

Gainesville’s new policy does, however, throw a few interesting ideas into this debate.  First of all, it attacks mountaintop removal from the consumption side.  Any historian of the coal trade knows that the demand for cheap energy and the fear of economic paralysis from “coal famines” has justified all sorts of heinous practices in the industry.  In the 19th century, urban residents might be sympathetic to miners who risked life and limb in dreadful working conditions to raise coal.  But they expected the coal to keep flowing.  When miners struck in 1902, newspapers and politicians fretted that the resulting “coal famine” would trigger widespread panic.  “If when the severe weather comes on there is a coal famine I dread to think of the suffering, in parts coal-strikes-coal-famine-olean-evening-times-ny-08-dec-19191of our great cities especially” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “and I fear there will be fuel riots of as bad a type as any bread riots we have ever seen.” Combating mountaintop removal from the consumption side might be more effective than appealing to the public’s sense of environmental justice.  TR’s unprecedented intervention in the Great Anthracite Strike of 1902 owed more to the fear of fuel shortages than it did to abstract notions of fairness in the debate between capital and labor.  So perhaps weaning buyers like Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) off of coal secured by mountaintop removal offers some hope for environmental activists.

But, as with any energy policy, there is a wrinkle.  The City Commission added a provision to this policy that adds a price tag to Gainesville’s clean conscience.  If the cost difference rises above five percent, GRU is allowed to resume purchasing mountaintop removal coal.  Putting a price tag on this policy really makes it more of a gesture towards more ethically raised coal–although that concept is a difficult one in and of itself–than a decision that might have a real bite to it. As it turns out, the good residents of Gainesville might suffer a mild increase in their utility bill, but in the grand tradition of American energy history, the cheap fuel will keep flowing.

About Sean Adams

I'm the Chair of the history department at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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