Say no to coal, but what about the miners?

Coal smoke stack

Coal smoke stack

Coal is an abundant and cheap source of fuel. Other than that, there’s nothing nice to say about it. I’ve heard about “clean coal” technology, but haven’t heard anything clean about it.

In fact, if coal’s environmental and health costs were included in the price, it wouldn’t even be cheap.

The coal industry and its unions would counter that it’s a source of good jobs. That position deserves respectful consideration. 

Brassed Off

I played in a brass band for four or five years, and we all anticipated the movie Brassed Off with great enthusiasm. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a terrible movie with a glorious sound track, played by the Grimethorp Colliery Band.

I bring it up here because it’s essentially a screed against Margaret Thatcher for closing British coalmines. British companies, including the Grimethorpe Colliery, have sponsored brass bands for more than a century now. Portraying the lives of bandsmen therefore serves as an excellent vehicle for focusing on miners as people.

The movie does dwell on black lung, a disease that slowly kills so many coal miners. Almost any other job is healthier. But still, it makes Thatcher the villain.

Obama coal billboardBillboards in West Virginia, southern Ohio, and probably other states I haven’t driven through, demonize President Obama the same way.

Politically, it’s hard to think of any other issue on which Thatcher and Obama could be linked, but doing what’s right for the air and water in coal country virtually requires destroying the coal industry. What happens to all the miners? They’ll be healthier, but what good is that if they can’t support themselves and their families?

I recall similar concerns when health concerns started to threaten the tobacco industry. Farmers, the industry said, grow tobacco on land that’s not economical for anything else.

Now that I live in North Carolina, I can testify that farmers can grow grapes. North Carolina wines are beginning to gain respect. They can also grow plenty of other fruits and vegetables.

I don’t see the wheat, corn, and soybean fields I grew up with, but former tobacco farmers have certainly found other crops to grow and make money from.

Coal miners, too, will find other work. They can even still work for energy businesses.

 Good jobs above ground

I can certainly sympathize with coal miners’ frustration with President Obama. His rhetoric makes them feel that, instead of supporting their families with dirty work, they are doing something bad for the country.

Granted he inherited an economic crisis. He also got a lot of votes from union members. Coal miners certainly have the right to expect that if he is going to champion policies that will hurt the coal industry, he would take steps to offset their effects on workers. The union’s billboards proclaim that he hasn’t.

Fortunately, other organizations are picking up the slack: Sustainable Williamson, for example. http://sustainablewilliamson.org Among other initiatives, it assembled a crew of laid off or underemployed coal miners to install solar panels on the rooftop of a local doctor’s office.

Moving from the mines to clean energy industries has become a trend. People who follow this path earn higher salaries than they did in the mines. Their new jobs are also far less hazardous.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationwide more people are employed in solar energy today than in coalmines. Can clean energy industries in West Virginia absorb all the workers who get laid off from the mines?

The role of state and local governments

installing home solar panels

Installing home solar. Photographer’s caption: The rails that will hold the solar panels in place are up, and we are wrapping up at the end of Day 1 of installing the panels on a low-income house in Oakland, California.

Most American recognize that the federal government must play a leading role in fixing what’s wrong with our energy system. Too many of us fail to recognize the importance of state and local governments.

I have already written about how they can make home solar more affordable. But I  just posed a question specific to employment in West Virginia.

Local governments all over the country have an important say in the answer to that questions. Solar technology is improving and becoming less expensive. As the hard costs of solar energy come down, the process and expense of getting the necessary permits looms larger and larger.

According to one study, the process of getting permits accounted for 5-10% of the cost of a solar installation in 2010. Even if the various jurisdictions do not raise their fees, the cost of permits will account for a larger percentage of the cost of retrofitting a home or business as the price of the hardware goes down.

As I wrote last year, the state of Vermont took a huge step in simplifying the permitting process.

There are plenty of other factors besides government policy that will help to answer the question of whether clean energy can absorb all the coal miners who will lose their jobs in the process of developing sustainable energy. Methods of financing the high initial cost of green technologies, for example

I need to keep this post to a reasonable length. But we need to recognize that as we move away from coal, it has an impact on the lives of real people. Whatever enhances the success of renewable energy sources likewise enhances the chance that coal miners will find better jobs than the ones they’ll lose.

Sources:
Moving Above Ground: From Coal Mines to Clean Energy / Emily Hois
Local Permitting Makes a Bigger Difference as Solar Gets Cheap / John Farrell
Photo credits:
Coal smoke stack. Some rights reserved by Señor Codo.
Billboard. West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy
Installing home solar. Some rights reserved by Lauren Wellicome.


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