Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell recently took the extraordinary step of calling on governors to ignore Washington’s Clean Power Plan, an EPA mandate to curb carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“Declining to go along with the administration’s legally dubious plan will give the other two branches of government time” to determine if the plan will withstand legal challenges, the Senate majority leader said in a letter addressed to all members of the National Governors Association. In it, he counseled states to openly defy the federal government.
Although McConnell claims to be fighting to preserve coal miners’ jobs, bucking the White House won’t help the people who live in Appalachian coal country. Market forces, not federal policy, are killing the industry — and no policy can curtail or contain them.
While researching my new book, Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet, I’ve interviewed hundreds of coal miners, coal executives, environmentalists, government officials, and scholars. I’ve spent two years traveling to coal communities from the hills of eastern Kentucky to the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.
Everywhere I went, I witnessed the coal industry under an economic siege. Demand for electricity is flattening as low-cost natural gas and increasingly cheap wind and solar power displace America’s original fossil fuel.
The number of Kentucky’s coal jobs peaked nearly 20 years ago, and there are now more solar workers than coal miners in America.
With prices down by a third over the past four years and most Appalachian mines operating at a loss, this shift isn’t reversible. Regions and communities that have based their livelihoods on coal must find other sources of jobs and investment or sink further into poverty.
And that realization is growing, even in coal’s heartland. It’s easy to proclaim your loyalty to King Coal while standing on the Senate floor. It’s a lot more complicated if you have to look your neighbors in the eye every day.
“What’s happening here is not mysterious,” Terry Sammons, who heads the Economic Redevelopment Authority in Mingo County, West Virginia, told me. “You just have to look around you to see that coal is not the future for this area.”
That fact is fueling change in the coalfields, as unlikely alliances between labor unions, local officials, and environmental groups have formed to start creating a post-coal future. Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) is a region-wide program to harness community resources and come up with economic development initiatives that don’t involve mining coal.
The brainchild of two of Kentucky’s most powerful politicians — Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Representative Hal Rogers, the Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee — SOAR is helping secure funding for new economic development ventures. Sustainable forestry, increased tourism, and even hemp farming are on the table.
Wasting time and money fighting the EPA won’t help these grassroots economic efforts.
“Things change,” said Terry Carwile, the mayor of Craig, a coal town on Colorado’s Western Slope. “Either you’re in the driver seat or you’re getting dragged behind the bumper.”
A coal miner for 30 years, Carwile is no climate change activist. But he supported the building of a “solar garden” in Craig, in the shadow of the big coal-fired Hayden Station power plant.
That solar project will harness renewable energy for Craig and nearby Steamboat Springs while bringing new economic activity to the town.
Demagoguery and anti-EPA posturing won’t provide a secure future for the people of Craig, the folks in Mingo County, West Virginia, or the mining towns of Kentucky. The people who live in these places get this. It’s too bad their elected representatives in Washington don’t.