By Drew Callaghan
November 29, 2017
In a bizarre scenario, the Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing in West Virginia this week to drum up support for killing its own Clean Power Plan (CPP), designed to reduce carbon emissions gradually over the next 12 years. Four of the first ten speakers on the agenda work for the state’s largest coal corporation and serial violator of worker safety laws, Murray Energy.
One was CEO Robert Murray, who claimed the CPP threatens the livelihood of coal miners. But he has a tough credibility problem to overcome: he previously admitted President Trump “can’t bring [coal jobs] back,” regardless of any cost reductions gained by allowing more pollution.
Market forces, not public health and environmental protection laws, are driving coal to the margins. Ignoring that reality only deepens the harm to working people in coal country.
Far from the “War on Coal” alleged by Trump appointees, our federal government has continued a wide range of permanent subsidies right through the Obama years that eclipse support for renewable energy.
Despite these subsidies and the fact that the CPP’s rules were never enforced, coal produced only about 15 percent of all energy in the U.S. last year. Market share has declined for more than a decade, thanks to plunging natural gas prices, reductions in demand from abroad, and ever-cheaper renewable energy. Researchers from Columbia University found public health and environmental protections instituted under President Obama account for just three to five percent of coal’s sales decline.
Regardless of their lobbying for deregulation, coal companies also recognize the future is with renewables; Berkeley Energy Group soon will begin turning a strip mine near their Kentucky headquarters into a solar farm.
Displacement of coal jobs isn’t limited to Appalachia. In Colstrip, Montana, where over half of the working-age adults are employed in the coal industry, outside utilities are shutting down coal-fired power plants and leaving locals a shrinking window in which to build other businesses or flee the community. While heel-dragging may help coal company owners extract more profit for a few years, it does not help miners or their families build a viable future.
A new strategy for these places is needed. Declining domestic demand no longer can be replaced by foreign buyers like China, which is leading the world in adding solar and wind capacity and is eliminating coal plants.
Renewable energy already succeeds in the marketplace and is a high-value industry employing far more people than coal, with decades of growth to come. “We are setting ourselves up to miss the boat,” says Karl Unterschuetz, head of business development at Itek Energy. “The U.S. is poised to be a global leader in renewable energy if we would just move away from coal.” Itek is one of only five major solar panel manufacturers in the U.S. and faces an uphill battle against competitors in China, Germany and other nations thinking forward on energy.
Furthermore, decentralizing our energy supply carries the added benefit of greater durability and resistance to widespread power loss in the event of severe storms, sabotage, or other disruptions. For example, Puerto Rico’s centralized electrical grid, dependent on imported fossil fuels, is one reason their recovery from Hurricane Maria is so slow.
Beyond embracing renewable sources of power, we can adapt to our changing economy by taking the billions of dollars effectively handed out to coal companies and invest it into infrastructure for entrepreneurial opportunities – such as small business loans, business training and high-speed internet – in coal communities.
The sooner government officials accept coal’s life cycle has run its course, the greater the opportunity for coal communities to build positive alternatives and self-reliance and, perhaps, avoid disaster.