Coal miners, Hurricane Sandy and China’s GreenGen
By Deirdre Griswold
December 21, 2012
This year, possibly for the first time ever, the United Mine Workers did not
endorse a presidential candidate. In 2008, the union was an early endorser of
Obama, and has usually supported Democratic candidates. The union’s
decision to sit it out this year was an indication of the crisis that has
befallen coal miners, who don’t know where to turn for help.
China in 2010 became the
world’s largest investor in clean
energy. It is the largest producer
of solar panels and of wind energy.
Here, an engineer points to a diagram
of the GreenGen coal-fired, low-emission
power plant that went online this year.
In 1923, there were 700,000 coal miners in the United States. Today, there
are fewer than 88,000. In this same period, the total amount of coal produced
here annually has doubled, while productivity per worker has increased about 14
Mining coal is a hard, dirty and dangerous job. Most of the mines are in
areas, like Appalachia, where poverty is high and other types of work are hard
to get. Historically, coal miners have been among the most class-conscious and
militant workers. Their harsh conditions and the high-handed, brutal tactics of
the mine owners resulted in class struggles that have at times amounted to open
Both capitalist parties want the votes of miners and their communities but
have no answers to their rising problems. The Republicans tried to make hay
this year by blaming growing unemployment in mining areas on government
regulation of coal mining and coal-fired power plants, which are major
producers of greenhouse gas (GG) pollution. Romney even found some coal miners
willing to stand on the platform at one of his campaign rallies. The
Republicans failed to capture the union’s endorsement, but the workers
were disappointed enough with the Obama administration to withhold their
No mention of climate change in debates
Capitalist politics is based upon deception of the masses of people. This
election was no exception. While the presidential debates were about the budget
deficit and taxes, the all-important issues of jobs, poverty and climate change
got little attention from the candidates. Climate change in particular was
never even mentioned.
It should have been a perfect opportunity to bring to hundreds of millions
of viewers a clear, scientific explanation of what is happening to the
world’s environment because of rampant, profit-driven industrial
expansion, and then present a program of what to do about it.
Here, in the richest of all capitalist countries, the technology and the
human power exist to remake the entire infrastructure and begin to turn around
the intensifying cycle of unnatural disasters now unfolding.
The energy of every person who needs and wants a job and training could be
employed in such an endeavor.
Of course, nothing of the kind happened. The absolute lack of any plan, even
to deal with the after-effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and floods,
let alone with their causes, was made painfully clear during and immediately
after the election. Millions had their lives turned upside down by
climate-change-induced catastrophes all over the country, from wildfires in the
West and drought in the Midwest grain belt to the swath of submerged and
hammered communities hit by Hurricane Sandy, which rampaged from the New
York-New Jersey coast all the way to the Great Lakes and into Canada.
Yet the recent annual U.N. talks on climate change, which took place this
year in Doha, the capital of oil-rich Qatar, got nowhere as usual.
The governments of the rich and powerful capitalist countries that have
produced the vast majority of carbon dioxide gas that today blankets the earth,
trapping its heat, have blocked any efforts to set quotas for reducing the
emission of greenhouse gases. Nor could the small island countries that face
extinction as sea levels rise get any meaningful help for their people.
However, the lack of an international agreement hasn’t stopped every
country from moving ahead with tackling this urgent problem. Most notable is
the People’s Republic of China. It is worth citing a few facts about what
China is doing, especially since most of the U.S. media present China as a
major problem in climate change.
China pioneers ‘clean’ coal
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy. It has the largest coal
deposits in the world, and is presently the largest consumer of coal. This is a
huge problem for China, and has contributed to serious air pollution in most of
But in 2010 China became the world’s largest investor in clean energy.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the U.S. spent trillions on bailing out the
banks and other financial institutions. China, seeing its export market drying
up as the Western capitalist economies plunged, did something different. It
invested nearly a trillion dollars in its infrastructure, much of it dealing
with the problem of energy conservation as well as clean energy generation.
It established the Thermal Power Research Institute, the Clean Energy
Research Institute and many other government bodies to integrate scientific
breakthroughs with industrial development. This led to vastly expanding its
investment in renewables like solar panels and wind farms.
In October the China Institute of Atomic Energy announced it had completed
the construction of an experimental fourth-generation fast neutron reactor that
is now contributing 20 megawatts to the power grid. The plant utilizes 60
percent of the energy in its uranium fuel, compared to just 1 percent for older
pressurized water reactors. The next step in China’s nuclear program is a
fast reactor that uses recycled fuel — thus beginning to draw down the
huge piles of radioactive waste accumulating around the world.
China’s investment in cleaner energy has also led to the development
of new ways to use coal without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
This year, a coal-fired plant called GreenGen went online in Tianjin that is
generating 400 megawatts of electricity with near-zero emissions of carbon and
sulfur. The carbon is sequestered and pumped back deep underground. GreenGen is
a pilot plant; if it performs as expected, China will build more and phase out
the older polluting plants.
Coal is not the answer for all time, obviously. Coal, like oil and gas, is a
fossil fuel. It was created by geological processes over millions of years, and
it is being depleted at an alarming rate by human extraction. It is not
Over the short term, however, the new coal-fired energy technology can help
China reduce its GG emissions — which it committed itself to do at the
U.N. conference in Copenhagen three years ago. It voluntarily set itself a
target of a 45 percent reduction in GG emissions per unit of economic
development by 2020. (Bloomberg News, April 3)
China is still a developing country, one that has to feed and house 1.3
billion people — four times the population of the U.S. How can it afford
to be on the cutting edge of dealing with global warming, when only two
generations ago most of its people lived in dire poverty?
The answer is that, despite the growth of the capitalist market in China,
its central financial and industrial institutions are still publicly owned and
operated according to a planned economy made possible by its socialist
revolution of 1949. Even Western capitalists, who would love to break up state
control over the Chinese economy as they did in the former USSR, recognize
‘Earth, the Operator’s Manual’
The U.S. Public Broadcasting System aired a documentary last April entitled
“Earth, the Operator’s Manual.” It can be viewed online.
Among the people interviewed on this program, which deals with the question of
climate change, is Jon Hofmeister, the head of Shell USA.
Hofmeister says about China: “There is literally a plan in their
energy policies. It’s good to have a plan — having that long arc of
commitment. … We’re not making the decisions at the national level
that need to be made in terms of the next decade and the next several decades
after that. … Places like China have a clear plan, and they are driving
forward and they are building an energy infrastructure for the 21st century
which will perhaps supply energy to the world’s largest economy —
China, not the U.S.”
How ironic that a major capitalist — from the oil industry, no less
— should speak admiringly of China’s economic plan. Of course,
Hofmeister would be horrified if we were to suggest that Shell, Mobil, General
Electric, Ford, Citibank and all the huge corporations and banks that have a
lock on the U.S. economy should be taken over through a workers’
revolution so that the riches of this society, built by the workers, could be
organized in a rational plan and used to meet people’s needs, not the
profit greed of a small class of parasitic owners.
No, Hofmeister wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants the
capitalist government to invest the workers’ money into just enough
planning of infrastructure so that his company won’t fall behind China
and can still produce enormous profits for his class.
One of the U.S. companies that has started doing business in China is
Peabody Coal. It actually divested its mines in Appalachia by selling them to a
company created for this purpose, which then conveniently went bankrupt. This
pushed the responsibility for the miners’ pensions and health coverage
onto the government — a common trick nowadays.
Peabody is involved in the GreenGem plant, and would probably like to take
the technological knowhow that China has developed in the field of
near-zero-emission, coal-fired energy generation and make profits from it here
in the U.S. But Peabody wouldn’t sink much of its own money into such a
plan. It would agree with Hofmeister that the government should pay the
lion’s share. The primary concern of Peabody, as a capitalist
corporation, is not clean energy. It is profit.
The U.S. capitalist government, however, is already so overburdened with
paying the banks their interest on the national “debt,” spending
trillions on protecting the worldwide imperialist interests of big capital, and
also repressing the working class at home — where we have the largest
prison population in the world — that it is trying to figure out what to
cut, not what to add.
Mattoon power plant, dead before it was born
Actually, there was a plan to build such a low-emissions coal-fired power
plant in the U.S., beginning back in 2004 with the founding of the FutureGen
Alliance. Millions of dollars were sunk into it before the Bush administration
withdrew funding. After the bubble burst, the new Obama administration said in
2009 that some of the stimulus money should go into building the FutureGen
plant in Mattoon, Ill. But it seems that the plug has been pulled on that
plant, and it is now going nowhere.
The capitalist system has no answers to the problem of global warming or to
the despair of the coal miners, who are being replaced not by environmental
regulations but by new technology like mountaintop removal.
Meanwhile, many communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy are still suffering.
And the Midwest drought has lowered the Missouri and Mississippi rivers by as
much as 20 feet, threatening to halt shipping there. (Thanks to WW subscriber
Joe Johnson of Wisconsin for this information.)
The profit motive, which is so totally entrenched in this capitalist
society, stands in the way of a rational reorganization of the economy that
would provide jobs for all while re-greening the planet. Only the working class
and the oppressed, fighting in their own interests, have the power to bring
this ruling class down and put production on a sustainable basis.
Environmentalists have a duty to do all they can to help make this happen.