— The sooner the better.
Since the election, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from reporters who want to know, basically, what’s up with Appalachia, coal, and Trump. They ask questions like:
“Trump says he’s going to bring coal back, but can he?”
“Even if Trump pulls out of the Paris climate agreement, or rolls back environmental standards, will that turn things around for coal?”
“If Trump doesn’t deliver on his coal promises, will Appalachian voters hold him accountable?”
“Do folks on the ground see the writing on the wall for coal, or do they really believe Trump can bring it back?”
I can answer some of these easily. But on others, I wish the reporters luck in finding answers to questions I’ve been wondering about a lot myself.
The questions I can answer are the first ones, about whether coal can make a comeback. The short answer is no, especially not here in Appalachia, and there are several reasons for that.
First, Appalachian coal is a non-renewable resource we’ve been pulling out of the ground for a century. The most profitable coal seams are gone, and the remaining coal is more expensive, dangerous, and destructive to mine.
Second, the demand for coal is in permanent decline, and it isn’t coming back. That’s because we aren’t building any new coal power plants in this country; almost half the existing coal plants have announced retirement; the remaining plants face unrelenting market competition and grassroots pressure; and a promised international coal boom has not come to pass as other nations are rapidly decreasing their coal use.
For the first time in a century, coal is facing competition in the marketplace, and those competitors aren’t going away. Power from wind is now cheaper than coal in many parts of the country; solar is nipping at coal’s heels; and when power companies make new investments, they’re turning to renewable energy—the biggest new source of new power on the grid for the past two years running.
Plus, the people who have lived for decades on the receiving end of coal’s pollution—the parents of kids suffering from asthma, and families who have water coming out of their tap contaminated with arsenic, mercury, and lead—are finding that if they join together, they can win cleaner air and water for their communities. Those grassroots community leaders have been the driving force behind most of the nation’s 249 (and counting) announced coal plant retirements. They’re active in the places where we make decisions about how we generate electricity in America, which is not in Washington, DC, but in states, counties, and cities—in venues like utility commissions, state legislatures, and city councils.
Finally, regardless of who is in the White House, the rest of the world remains committed to tackling climate change, as severe storms, droughts, and wildfires create climate refugees and political tinder boxes in one country after another. And coal pollution is the number-one contributor to the carbon emissions fueling the climate crisis.
The future (and increasingly the present) will be powered by clean energy because it’s cheaper, it’s cleaner, and it puts more people to work. The marketplace and the public are moving beyond coal, and weakening our clean water and air standards won’t change that. It just leaves us with more pollution to clean up. As we’re all experiencing, our failure to grapple with that reality here in West Virginia has serious ramifications for our state budget, our schools, the health care of public employees, you name it.
By putting our heads in the sand, we’re also being left out of the economic opportunity the clean energy revolution is creating. According to the Department of Energy, there are more than 475,000 people in the wind and solar industry (compared to 160,000 in the coal industry), and it’s one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy—solar alone created one out of every fifty new U.S. jobs in 2016. Clean energy is also generating tremendous revenue for the tax base in local communities.
We Are Not a Poor Country
Those are the questions I can answer. But I can’t as easily answer those reporters’ questions about the beliefs in the hearts of my fellow West Virginians. Do they really believe coal is coming back? Or do they see the writing on the wall and want to move forward? I suspect it’s a little bit of both, and so I tell the reporters to do their job, set their stereotypes about Appalachia aside, ask good questions, and let us know what they learn.
Recently, someone did just that. In March, Senator Bernie Sanders held a town hall in McDowell County that gave us a glimpse of what an authentic conversation about Appalachia’s future can look like when a political leader is honest about coal and climate change, and when people feel they’re actually being heard with compassion by someone who genuinely cares.
During the conversation, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asks the crowd whether they think Trump can actually bring coal jobs back, and the room answers with a resounding “no.” He poses this question to Senator Sanders, who is seated beside a coal miner: “Coal, I think, is on a long-term decline. What do you tell the folks here, for whom that is the one job that pays a decent wage and gives benefits?”
Sanders responds: “Well, let me be honest and say two things … coal in this area has been in decline since the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s not anything that’s new. Second of all, and I know not everybody will be happy with me saying this, but I happen to believe, unlike the president, that climate change is real and is a threat to our way of life. But having said that, I don’t hold this gentleman and the coal miners responsible for climate change. In fact, these guys are heroes …
“In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, what we have to do is to say that the choice is not transforming our energy system to protect the planet and throw people out on the street. The choice is reinvesting in communities that have been devastated by changes in energy, and make sure folks have decent-paying jobs. And we can do that. We are not a poor country.”
Over and over, the crowd interrupts with applause. Hearing such respect and straight-talk from a political leader speaking with regular Appalachian families was so refreshing that, I’ll be honest, I got a little choked up and teary-eyed the first time I watched it.
Can you imagine having the same kind of honesty from our own state political leaders? I won’t hold my breath. Instead, they’re too busy parading around with Donald Trump, fast-tracking measures to eliminate the meager clean water standards we have in place, belittling the public servants charged with safeguarding public health and safety, and crippling enforcement of the meager pollution and mine safety protections that remain.
This is doing Appalachia a double disservice. First, we’re making our people sicker, making it harder to attract new industries that could diversify our economy, and digging our state budgets into a deeper and deeper hole. Second, we’re missing out on one of the fastest-growing parts of our economy: clean, renewable energy.
My daughter is an 11th-generation West Virginian through my husband’s side of the family. I want her to grow up in a thriving state where she can raise a 12th generation, in a twenty-first century Appalachia centered on our region’s incredible culture, arts, history, heritage, and natural beauty. Trump can’t bring coal back, and the sooner we start having clear-eyed, compassionate conversations about Appalachia’s future, the better. Our kids are counting on us.
— Mary Anne is a Jefferson County (WV) resident, and director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.