Tom Hansell’s book After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales will be published by WVU Press on November 1. In this opinion piece drawn from his research for the book, Hansell reacts to President Trump’s plan to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, and argues that Appalachia can, drawing on lessons from other parts of the world, work toward a post-coal future.
Last week President Trump traveled to West Virginia to announce his intention to scrap the Clean Power Plan, sounding a death knell for federal regulations on carbon emissions. While it’s undeniable that environmental regulations have a negative impact on coal jobs, the President ignores the fact that in states like West Virginia, coal and natural resources comprise only 3 percent of the state economy, according to a recent West Virginia College of Business report.
Nationally, the shift from coal mining jobs to other sectors is even more dramatic. A Department of Energy report shows that in 2016, the solar industry employed more than twice as many workers as the coal industry. The Department of Energy projects that renewable energy employment will continue to grow, as coal employment declines.
Meanwhile, the Energy Information Administration says that coal consumed in 2017 was the lowest amount since 1983, and 2017 was the fourth consecutive year of decline in US coal consumption and coal shipments. Still, the fact that coal producing counties in places like West Virginia are struggling to maintain roads and provide clean drinking water makes some residents nostalgic for jobs that have been drifting away for decades.
Other developed countries have faced the challenge of a transition from coal, moving beyond the false choice of either jobs or the environment. In Germany, the miners’ union actively participated in negotiations to phase out the nation’s hard coal industry. This was a risky move for labor leaders whose instinct may be to protect their industry at all costs, but the risk paid off. The union’s participation in the planning process meant that workers were able to enroll in job training programs, and many former mine sites have been preserved as industrial heritage areas. Germany’s economy remains the strongest in Europe.
Other developed countries have faced the challenge of a transition from coal, moving beyond the false choice of either jobs or the environment.
In the United Kingdom, the bitter coal strike of 1984–1985 resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of coal mining jobs. As a result, many communities were devastated. However, in the following years many coalfield residents were able to successfully advocate for government support to reclaim mine sites, clean up polluted waterways, and adapt abandoned mining facilities to meet local needs. For example, the DOVE workshop operates a training and entrepreneurship center for women from a former coal mine office in Banwen, Wales.
What would it take to bring initiatives like those here? Local control of land is a major obstacle to economic diversification. The local control of former mine sites in the UK provides a stark contrast to West Virginia, where a 2013 report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reveals that between 50 and 75 percent of land in the state’s southern coalfields is owned by absentee corporations. The report also points out the need to “ensure that large landowners are adequately taxed on property and holdings,” as many of these absentee corporations pay very little state and local taxes.
The local control of former mine sites in the UK provides a stark contrast to West Virginia, where a 2013 report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reveals that between 50 and 75 percent of land in the state’s southern coalfields is owned by absentee corporations.
In spite of these challenges there has, during the past decade, been a growing movement of residents in coal mining states like West Virginia and Kentucky to develop sustainable local economies. In West Virginia, organizations such as the Coalfields Development Corporation and the Southern Appalachian Labor School use a mix of education, entrepreneurship, and grant support to provide a range of services including renewable energy, home renovations, sustainable agriculture, and job training. The Coalfields Development Corporation recruits coal miners for a program that combines paid work, college credit, and professional mentorship. Everyone who completes the program leaves with job experience and an associate’s degree.
In Kentucky’s coalfields, organizations such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development are organizing grassroots support for the RECLAIM act, a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to free up existing Abandoned Mine Land Funds to diversify the coalfield economies. They argue that this approach is a more effective use of federal policy than deregulation. These groups support renewable energy, but more importantly, they support democratic decision-making that allows local people to decide what is good for their home communities—including providing support for local farmers, small businesses, and job skills training. Their voices need to be at the table as policy is being made. Local ownership of solutions is key to building a sustainable economy.
These groups support renewable energy, but more importantly, they support democratic decision-making that allows local people to decide what is good for their home communities.
If Trump truly loves coal country, he will support programs that provide local people access to opportunity and resources to build a diverse, robust, and sustainable economy. Otherwise, he risks alienating his supporters in coal communities with more empty promises.