Catalonia Referendum on Leaving Spain

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Spain is the 4th largest nation in Europe. Currently, there are 46,423,064 people living there. Politically, there is something going on that could affect whether or not the two stats mentioned remain this way.

Spain does not have provinces or states. Instead, Spain has 16 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities(Ceuta and Melilla). One of those autonomous communities is having a vote on whether or not to stay, or break from Spain.

That autonomous community is Catalonia. Catalonia is due to hold a referendum on Sunday, 1 October 2017. There will be a vote on whether or not Catalonia will remain part of Spain or become its own country. According to the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Catalonia, along with Galicia and the Basque region, has the definition as a nationality. Catalonia lost autonomy after the Spanish Civil War, and had no such autonomy under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. After Franco’s death, Catalonia would soon regain autonomy, and its people the recognition as a distinct people.

To put this in human geography terms, Catalans are the name of the people living in Catalonia. Spanish is the official language of Spain. For Catalonia, Spanish is spoken, but Catalan is the official language. Catalan people see themselves as a distinct people. Separatist sentiments are nothing new for Catalonia. This can be traced back to the Catalan Renaissance (Renaixença) of the 19th century. The goal was to revive the Catalan language and traditions. Some people started to demand independence from Spain.

The current upcoming referendum goes back to 2014, when Catalonia held a non-binding vote on self-determination. It was about Catalonia desiring to become a state. In the 2015 regional election, Carles Puigdemont was elected President of the Generalitat of Catalonia. He was the first to refuse to take the oath to the Spanish constitution and its current monarch, Felipe IV.

To understand more about Catalonia and the impact of an independent Catalonia, let’s look at the current geography. Catalonia is located in northeastern Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Its capital and largest city is Barcelona. 7,522,596 people live in Catalonia. Catalonia has a land area of 32,108 sq km (12,397 sq mi). Catalonia is a highly industrialized region of Spain. Generating 200 billion euros, it has the highest GDP in Spain. Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, is also home to one of Spain’s largest ports.

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However not everything is great. Its per capita income is 27,000 euros($30,000). This is lower than Madrid, the Basque County, and Navarre. Catalonia has lost almost 1,000 companies to other regions in Spain. Most have been relocating to Spain’s capital, Madrid. Catalonia is also the 2nd most expensive region in Spain to buy a new home. Catalonia’s economic credit rating is considered “non investment” grade. In 2012, Catalonia had the highest debt of Spain’s autonomous communities.

Even with some economic issues, Barcelona still leads Spain when it comes to employment. It is a major industrial center, port city, fashion and cultural center.

If Catalonia does become independent, it leaves much to consider. Currently, Catalonia is a major economic producer and industrial leader in Spain. Its high GDP within Spain leaves much to want to hold onto. Barcelona is the largest port city in Spain, as well as the largest city on the Mediterranean Sea. While Spain has other port cities, Barcelona is powerful. It has the 4th largest GDP of any city in the EU. If Catalonia does become independent, there leaves another question. Will Catalonia join the EU or not? If so, Barcelona will still remain part of the EU. Barcelona is a major producer of automobiles in Spain, and in Europe. It is a major center for tourism with its beaches and being the one of the busiest passenger ports in Europe. Barcelona is a major transportation hub.

Will the referendum pass? This could depend on many factors. So far, cultural ties are a major factor in the push for independence. Could Catalonia do without Spain? Could Spain do without Catalonia? What role will Barcelona play in the EU? Will it join the EU or not?

Explaining Appalachian Coal

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Make. America. Great. Again. This is the refrain of now-President Trump’s campaign. The plans to get the USA’s economy to better times. One major part of it is the coal industry. The coal mining and steel manufacturing regions served as a major part of the electorate for Trump.

Here is the truth. A politician can certainly support policies that are friendly towards manufacturing. However, in this case, in 2017, there are many things that the politicians cannot solve. There are things that screaming “fake news” cannot stop.

In terms of the economy, there are factors that need to be considered. It has become cheaper to produce steel in India and China than in the USA. The coal and steel industries in the USA have changed as well. The demand for coal in the USA has not been on the rise, at least in terms of where that coal comes from. The number of people employed by the coal industry has declined since the 1950s.

While environmental regulations have played a role, geography and technology are factors to consider. Let us start with technology. The coal industry has undergone immense automation. And with mountain top removal being a major mode of mining coal, fewer people are needed for mining the coal. But even mountaintop mining causes many problems, from degradation in the local topography to health problems for people.

Hobet Mountain in West Virginia before and after mountaintop removal.

And then where the coal is coming from. Geography lesson now. Low sulfur coal is in higher demand these days. A majority of the coal being mined in the USA is coming from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

Decker’s Coal Mine in Montana.

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Central Appalachia’s high-sulfur coal is in less demand these days, at least in power plants. It still has a use in the steel mills. And we segue into steel.

The USA still produces steel, a large amount of it. China leads the world in steel production. However, the USA is in the top 5 in terms of steel production. 78.62 million metric tons of steel were produced in 2016 by the USA. Steel production hit a low of 58 million metric tons in 2009. This likely reflects the state of the economy. Less demand for steel, less production. However, in 2000, 101.8 million metric tons of steel were produced by the USA. The steel industry itself employs fewer people than it did in 1960. That said, the steel industry too has underwent automation. Steel is not as labor intensive as it was in 1960. Fewer people are needed to produce steel. Furthermore, the sources for energy in the steel mills are changing. Anthracite and bituminous coal from Appalachia are used in the steel mills. Coal is used as a reducing agent in steel. Natural gas is also being used. According to the Scientific American, more steel plants are looking for cleaner ways to produce energy for producing steel. The method being spoken of is electrolysis. Natural gas in increasingly being used in steel manufacturing. Coal will be competing with other forms of energy.

And now back to coal. A geological factor. The easy to get to, economical coal seams that served Central Appalachia in its heyday have become nearly exhausted. The coal that is left is harder to retrieve from the ground.

Another factor is transportation. Transporting coal will come at a cost. Appalachian coal tends to be carried over longer distances compared to other kinds of coal. A majority of coal is shipped by railroad, 58 percent.

There is more. The largest amount of coal traveling by railroad goes between Wyoming/Montana and Missouri. Most of the coal coming from Appalachia travels via trucks. Truck shipping has its disadvantages. For starters, the speed limits. Coal cannot reach its destination as quickly compared to rail transportation. Rail transportation is privately owned and pays for itself. The interstate highway system in the USA is not as reliable. The road infrastructure needs constant repairs, and those repairs often come out of the taxpayer’s salaries. The railroad networks are going to be a major factor in the coal industry. Transportation costs have the potential of being higher than mining the coal. Rail transportation tends to be higher due to the railroads taking care of its own infrastructure. And with the cost of transportation comes another issue with Appalachia. Appalachia itself.

Appalachia’s geography presents some particular transportation problems. The Appalachian region is very rugged and mountainous. While the Rocky Mountains are rugged, and higher, there is a difference. The Powder River Basin has more in common topographically with the Great Plains than with the Rockies further West. The Appalachian Mountains could not be easily out-flanked. Even today, the topography of Appalachia makes transportation, while possible, difficult compared to many places. Appalachia has fewer railroads going through the region. With railroad being the main mode of transportation for coal, this will present a problem. Interstates have been built through Appalachia. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Atlanta are served by such interstates. However, Pittsburgh and Atlanta are in more favorable locations. Atlanta is technically not in the Appalachian Mountains, but in the Piedmont. However, Atlanta is close to the region, and some highways that serve Atlanta go through Appalachia. The coal, however, comes from the more remote parts of Appalachia, most notably eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

Appalachian coal is increasingly harder to get to. And due to the geography of the region, the coal is also harder to transport out of the region compared to other places. And with more demand for low sulfur coal, less demand for Appalachia’s coal. While it still has a use in the steel mills, the steel mills have their own changes. Changes in technology, the diversifying in energy, these are factors that need to be considered. The Powder River Basin has coal that is easier to reach, and coal that is easier to ship. More coal can be shipped from this region because the railroad infrastructure is more widely available.

The steel industry can get stronger. However, the likelihood of coal being a factor, while still there, will decline in its prevalence. Coal is in lesser demand these days. Even if environmental regulations were to be lifted, Appalachian coal is harder to get to compared to coal from other regions. In the end, geography, impact on an areas’s health, the economics of supply and demand, and technological changes will play bigger factors than any politician ever could.

Qatar’s Air Travel Dilemma

A small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf has made the news on the week of June 5th, 2017. Why?

Because that peninsula is the nation of Qatar, and it involves the nation’s airspace. Or rather, how diplomacy is affecting airspace. This past week, the nation of Qatar is undergoing accusations of funding terrorism in the Gulf region. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have discontinued ties with Qatar. To put this into a geopolitical perspective, check out the map below.

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Qatar is surrounded by the nations that are cutting diplomatic ties with it. There is something more to consider: Travel. Air space.

If an airplane flies out of Qatar, it will be entering the airspace of ALL THREE of the nations cutting ties with it. This is a problem because airplanes flying out of Qatar are not allowed into the airspace of those countries.

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Look at this map. Bahrain’s airspace sits in between Qatar’s airspace and Iran’s airspace. In short, Airplanes from Qatar cannot go anywhere. A small amount of airspace would be a problem. However, geography is about LOCATION. If Qatar’s airspace could extend directly to Iran’s airspace, a ban on Qatar planes into surrounding airspace would be costly, but tolerable.

Qatar Airways has its base in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Flights bound for Qatar wouldn’t be able to Doha without traveling through airspace it is banned from traversing. What will this cost? This would cost Qatar Airways a large amount of money. If all flights to and from a certain place are grounded, this costs alot of money. And then people have to fly back to Qatar.

Currently, UAE, and Bahrain are part of the  International Air Services Transit Agreement. Legally, they cannot prevent flights from Qatar from traversing their airspace. However, the aforementioned nations could opt out of the treaty. Saudi Arabia, however, is not part of that treaty and can enforce a travel ban on planes flying from Qatar. What would this cost?

Travel to the African continent would essentially be longer and more costly. Flights to South Africa would be hit hard. And this is if flights from Qatar Airways are allowed to fly through UAE airspace, because that is the route flights would have to take if they are banned from traveling through Saudi Arabia’s airspace.

The Gulf region in the Middle East has historically been a contentious region. There have been many conflicts over a millennium. This is just the latest. Could another war break out in the region? How will Qatar’s economy be affected by this? If people cannot easily fly to a place, they will likely not want to do business there, or be tourists there. There are so many implications to consider. Geography, geopolitical, and economic.