When I was a kid, in the summers, I drove a tractor — first discing, then plowing, then cultivating about a thousand acres in north central Oklahoma. Day after day, year after year, there was a lot of time to think. One thing to think about was a brownish rusty streak on the northern horizon. It came from a coal burning power plant near Red Rock. There’s no coal in northern Oklahoma. It comes on trains from Wyoming. Why coal? It didn’t make sense. Now it does.
The answer is the market or lack thereof.
First, the coal burned at the power plant in Red Rock comes from rural Wyoming where the coal and most of the land belongs to the United States. The US government essentially gives the coal to companies who want to mine it. If the coal were owned by people there would be a market. There is no market. This is a very inefficient system, and it is really great for the coal companies and the politicians whom they influence.
There are only a few farmers and ranchers around to complain about the damage done to the surrounding land, water, and groundwater. If the coal companies neighbors were treated fairly, the coal companies would have to control their operations so that they did not damaged surrounding property. If it did damage surround property, the coal company would have to pay for it. As it is now, the coal company get to use (damage) their neighbors property for free. Again this is a very inefficient system, but it is great for the coal companies.
Second, the coal is sent from Wyoming to Oklahoma on by Railroads in 100 car unit trains. All along the way the trains sprinkle the countryside with coal dust. For the most part the Railroads are in rural and poor urban areas, so noone has the wherewithal to complain. When the Railroads need new routes they take the land for the new routes with eminent domain. The Railroads are sheltered from market forces. This is an inefficient system, but it is great for the Railroads and the coal companies.
Third, the coal is burned in rural Oklahoma. The few poor people who live nearby are covered in coal dust, their children are at higher risk for all kinds of ailments from autism to asthma. After the coal is burned, the ash is dumped in various ponds and old mines that pollute the air, water and groundwater. , The utilities that burn the coal are the most powerful corporate entities in the state. Their employees permeate the governmental board and councils that have any regulatory jurisdiction. When people complain, the regulators look the other way. The only option the people have is an expensive and decades long lawsuit against a wealthy and politically powerful company. As a result the utilities get to use (damage) their neighbours’ land, water, groundwater and health without paying for it. Again this is a very inefficient system but it is great for the utilities.
Most people will tell you we burn coal in Oklahoma because it is cheap. It is only cheap for the coal companies and the utilities. It is not cheap for the people in rural Wyoming where it is mined, rural Nebraska and Kansas through which the railroads run, or rural Oklahoma where the coal is burned and the fly ash is dumped. If the coal companies and the utilities had to pay for the property and the health that they destroy coal would not be cheap for them either.
One way to improve the situation is to protect the private property rights of individual citizens.