Strip Mining

November 14, 1973

Report Outline
Conflicit Between Energy and Ecology
Development of Surface Mining Industry
Prospects for Reclamation and Control
Special Focus

Conflicit Between Energy and Ecology

Focus on Coal in Wake of Arab Oil Embargo

Strip mining is at the heart of one of America's most nagging and difficult domestic dilemmas: how to balance urgent energy needs with vital environmental protection. Stripping, as this controversial method of surface mining is often called, has inflicted severe damage on the land in Appalachia and the Midwest, and is now moving into the Northern Great Plains and the Southwest. The nation is hungry for power, and coal—America's most abundant energy resource—can be extracted quickly, easily and cheaply by strip mining. As the Arab oil embargo puts a squeeze on U.S. supplies of heating fuel and gasoline, “King Coal” is being called upon to ease the imminent energy shortages. Coal is not likely to help much this winter, however, because of severe diesel fuel and railroad car shortages which will hamper mining and delivery operations.

Coal's preeminence among potential answers to the nation's energy crisis is based mainly on the fact that there is so much of it—3.2 trillion tons underground in the United States, or 90 per cent of all domestic fossil fuel resources, according to the Interior Department. Some 400 billion tons are considered readily recoverable with current technology. Yet coal today supplies less than 20 per cent of U.S. energy. Because of this enormous potential, coal—which only a decade ago had been written off in favor of cheap natural gas, plentiful foreign oil and promising nuclear power—has suddenly become the rising star of the U.S. energy picture.

Many citizens, however, are growing concerned that strip mining may destroy much of the country in order to save it. The coal industry contends that strip mining is the best way to supply the mineral—that stripping is more efficient, less costly and much safer than underground mining. Environmentalists counter that the nation's needs could be met by a return to deep mining. Indeed, the Bureau of Mines estimates that there are only 45 billion tons of “economically strippable” coal, while some 355 billion tons could be deep mined. Regardless of the arguments against strip mining, the energy crisis is sure to increase the pressure for more of it—at least in the near future. President Nixon, in asking the nation on Nov. 7 to save fuel and electricity, spoke of making efforts to turn more coal into oil and said “We can take heart in the fact that we in the United States have half of the world's known coal reserves.” He mentioned strip mining only to say “We must have the legal ability to set reasonable standards for the surface mining of coal….”

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