Commentary by John McFerrin

An interesting, if ultimately unproductive, sidelight to the controversy over the proposed windfarm in Greenbrier County was the alignment of Coal River Mountain Watch on one side and the Greenbrier County citizen group Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy on the other. The Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy adamantly opposed the project. They like Greenbrier County the way it is and don’t think that the electricity produced is worth the social costs of windmills.

Coal River Mountain Watch’s view is that the social costs of mountaintop removal coal mining are so great, so high, that electricity from any other source would be preferable. They support the project. If we get the electricity at the cost of our streams, our air, and our mountains then it could never be worth the price.

This controversy resulted in the parties sniping at each other at the public hearing and in letters to the editor. They seemed to frame the question as one of whether windmills or mountaintop removal mining was the preferable method for producing the electricity that society needs. Inherent in this debate was the question of who would suffer the most as a result of their living in an energy producing area.

The question is not even close. It is me stepping in the ring with Mike Tyson. It‘s the 1976 World Series. It’s the war with Grenada.

In Greenbrier County, the mountain ridges will be topped by windmills for the next twenty years. In mountain top removal areas, the mountain ridges will be gone. Forever.

In Greenbrier County, it is likely that the presence of the windmills will reduce some property values. Because the windmills are not in place, it hasn’t happened yet. Since much of what makes that property valuable is its bucolic setting, even a relatively benign industrial use such as a windmill will probably reduce those values.

In southern West Virginia the mountaintop removal mines are already there; we know what they do to property values. In Blair, West Virginia, the value of a piece of residential property near the mine is approximately zero.

In Greenbrier County, people have to look at windmills on the tops of distant ridges. There are places in West Virginia where the shadow of the boom of the giant dragline used in mountaintop removal mining fell across people’s houses.

From what we know, windmills in Greenbrier County will almost certainly result in the deaths of some wildlife, most notably birds and bats. In southern West Virginia the habitat that currently sustains wildlife, including those same birds and bats, will be gone. Of course, it won’t be gone forever. Just a few centuries.

Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Not even the shills from the Coal Association, who get paid to think that all aspects of mining are beautiful, contend that an active mountaintop removal mine is pretty. After the mining is over you could argue either way. For my money, even a post mining mountaintop removal site is uglier than a windmill. Others might think the windmills are uglier.

This is not to say, of course, that the citizens of Greenbrier County should not continue to object to the windmills. They moved there or, having been born there, stayed because they liked the particular kind of life that Greenbrier County offers. If they don’t think that whatever tax, employment, or other benefits would come from the windmills is worth what they would have to give up, then they are free to take the bit in their teeth and fight the windmills as long and hard as they wish.

Any kind of electricity production imposes some sort of cost upon society. More sensible and efficient use of electricity would make the overall cost less but unless we are going to forego the benefits of electricity altogether, society must choose some method or methods of producing electricity and be willing to endure the costs of those methods. We would still have a duty to assure that the methods we chose operated so that they had the least possible social cost and the costs were spread fairly. We do, however, have to recognize that any energy production has a social cost.

If the controversy over the proposed windfarm in Greenbrier County were merely a matter of looking at whether windmills or big strip mines resulted in greater social costs, the question would be easy. The social costs of big strip mines are so enormous that we would choose windmills every time.

Unfortunately, that is not what the controversy is. That is what makes the dust up between Coal River Mountain Watch and Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy unproductive.

The controversy is not over whether we have mountaintop removal strip mining or windmills or, to put it another way, whether windmills will replace the mining. Mountaintop removal mining will continue so long as it is economical. So long as the coal is here and someone can make money mining it, we will have mountaintop removal strip mining. If the companies were forced to bear the social costs of the mining then it would be less economical and would end sooner but as long as companies can make money doing it the practice will continue. The existence of windmills won’t change that.

The economics of mining make it especially likely that the practice will continue whether we have windmills or not. In its early phase, any mountaintop removal mine is a money pit. The company spends, spends, spends to get all the permits, build roads, build ponds, and do everything necessary to get ready to actually extract coal. These are essentially fixed costs; they will be about the same whether the company mines all the coal at the site or leaves some behind.

Once actual coal extraction begins the mine turns from a money pit to a license to print money. With ruthless efficiency the coal comes out of the ground and goes to market. During this period, the companies make money hand over fist, enough to make up for the money losing periods and make the mine as a whole profitable.

Unless we have enough windmills to replace an entire mine, their existence will not determine whether any mine goes forward. We are not even close to that point. Coal companies are not going to suffer through the money losing start up phase and then abandon some fraction of the coal because that coal can be replaced by windmills. They will still mine it, even if is not quite as profitable as it would have been had the mine not faced competition from wind energy. Windmills or not, the mining will go on.

This is what makes the debate between coal and wind power unproductive. Each will go ahead independent of whatever happens with the other. So long as somebody can make money doing it and our society, including the legal and political systems, concludes that producing electricity from strip mine coal is worth the cost to society, we will have strip mining. So long as somebody can make money doing it and our society, including the legal and political systems, concludes that producing electricity from windmills is worth the cost to society, we will have windfarms.

Instead of debating the false choice of coal versus wind energy, we would all be better off spending our energy forcing the coal and wind industries to bear all the costs of their operations, including the costs to society. It would be more productive–and more fun–then sniping at each other.

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