Remember, the Death of Coal Will Ruin Lives

Coal trains in Wyoming. Photo: KimonBerlin via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the United States, coal is dying out faster than hair metal. Just five years ago, nearly half the nation received its electricity from coal-fired power plants. Now it's closer to a third.

And you might be familiar with the reasons why: tighter Clean Air Act regulations that make it harder to build and operate polluting power plants, targeted campaigning from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and, perhaps most of all, a glut of cheap natural gas. It all amounts to a pretty good reason to celebrate. Coal, after all, is the number one driver of climate change, and a major source of air pollution.

But it's also important to remember that these forces are coming down hard on thousands of people's livelihoods, and fomenting their anger against both environmentalists and Obama's Washington. The New York Times gives a long look at the narrowly aborted closure of a jobs-sustaining coal plant in Kentucky, and details the desperate measures that the coal industry, labor unions, and local politicians undertook to keep it open:

Channeling the animosity toward Washington and fears about their livelihoods, coal producers, union leaders, landowners and railroads came together to pressure American Electric Power to back down on its plan to close the coal furnaces at Big Sandy. They have leaned on county judges, state legislators and other politicians to attempt to silence public criticism of the 30 percent electricity rate increase and to pressure the Kentucky Public Service Commission to approve the retrofit project.

Saving coal, they argued, justified the rate increase, which would cost the average residential customer about $472 a year in addition to the typical $1,580 annual bill today.

“I will grant you it is going to cost a lot of money to retrofit that plant,” said Nick Carter, the president of a company that represents landowners whose properties hold billions of tons of coal reserves. “But how many teachers will be laid off and how many churches will have to close if Big Sandy stops burning coal?”

Remarks like that genuinely tap into people's fears, even if they're being duplicitously delivered by millionaire landowners with immense interests at stake. Which is why it's nonetheless important to pay close attention to the distrust and anger impacted communities inevitably have regarding the departure of coal.

Environmentalists often gloss over the very real human impacts that comes with progress—they tend to euphemistically refer to anyone who wants coal to stick around as part of the big bad "coal industry" or being affiliated with pro-coal astroturf groups. And that's misleading, because while the coal industry may egregiously lobby to defeat clean air laws and fund efforts to confuse the public about climate change, the people who work at Big Sandy probably just want a job.

Environmentalist should be more sensitive to this fact, and should even perhaps be working to address it. Maybe, for instance, there's a way to better coordinate the exit of coal with an arrival of renewable energy projects. Or to enact transitionary job training programs for coal workers. Of course, this kind of thinking is uber-rosy at a moment when even the most meager clean energy tax credits stand to be gutted by Congress. Nonetheless, this figure struck me: that the utility AEP was going to spend $1 billion to retrofit the coal plant so it'd comply with EPA regs. To raise the cash, AEP wants to raise electricity rates by 30%. Thirty percent! That's over $430 a year—way more than Americans said they'd be willing to pay to subsidize more clean energy.

If the coal industry can get folks to swallow that rate hike for coal, perhaps green groups could make the point that that kind of money could go a long way towards creating clean, renewable energy projects in the region—and jobs to boot. There's room for creativity here; room for outreach. Let's not just snicker at the fact that coal's time has come: because with it comes the winding down of a long and complicated economic legacy in many communities across the nation.

Tags: Coal

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