Coal Miners and the Carbon-Free Energy Transformation

The Denver Post published my op-ed yesterday on coal mining and the closure of the New Horizon mine in western Colorado. There are some good environmental groups doing good work on this. Groups like Conservation Colorado here in the state and groups like Sierra Club and Van Jones and his Dream Corps nationally are among those pushing hard to end the use of coal as an energy source while simultaneously hustling hard to make sure coal miners and their communities are treated as respectfully as possible during this transition. But we the environmental community can and should do better.

Re: “Colorado coal jobs drop to fewer than 1,000 as Tri-State New Horizon mine shuts,” June 8 news story

Last week, the Tri-State electric utility announced the closure of the New Horizon coal mine in western Colorado. 

From a climate change and environmental perspective, this is good news. One less coal mine (and the eventual closure of the nearby Nucla coal-fired power plant) will mean reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality for Western Slope residents, and fewer people dying in mining accidents or suffering long-term health impacts from exposure to coal dust. And if we in Colorado hope to remain economically competitive in the 21st century, especially as the federal government cedes global renewable energy leadership to China and Europe, Colorado must transform its energy system as quickly as possible.

But the closure also means some hard-working Coloradans will lose their jobs. It’s easy for this to seem abstract, but these are real people, with families and communities and hopes of a comfortable retirement after years spent doing dangerous work. Some may not find work at all, or not for a long time. Even those that do may have to relocate or accept lower wages or a reduced quality of life. The loss of these jobs may have real consequences for Nucla and other nearby communities.

The growth in clean energy jobs can help offset the loss of coal mining jobs. Here in Colorado, more than 62,000 people work in the clean energy sector (compared to 1,000 in the coal industry) including solar panel installers, wind turbine operators, manufacturing lines, and energy efficiency services.

But it’s too easy to celebrate the march toward clean energy without recognizing, and taking seriously, the impacts this is having on people trying to earn a living and provide for their families. 

In 1977, Barbara Kopple’s film “Harlan County, Kentucky” won the Oscar for best documentary. It depicts a bloody year-long battle between union coalminers and the Duke Power Company, which itself is a recapitulation of a nearly decade-long (and even bloodier) union-mining company war in Harlan County in the 1930s. Watching it, you can’t help but feel sympathy for the coal miners, who are struggling to ensure such basics as a wage they can live on, sick leave, and the opportunity to retire when they are too crippled by black lung disease to work anymore.

It’s time to recognize that the coal miners of the Harlan County wars and their families, like the coal miners of today, are and always have been American heroes. Many have worked decades, often underground under dangerous conditions, and suffer from debilitating diseases with a shortened lifespan. The coal they broke up and brought to the surface, and the cheap energy it enabled, has improved the quality of life for most Americans, enabled the evolution of a modern health care system, broadly expanded educational opportunities, helped free women from backbreaking domestic work, and facilitated the creation of a vibrant middle class. 

The U.S. coal industry is dying, a victim of global economic forces and the desperate need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing will change that, not Donald Trump’s empty promises to West Virginians, not the fantasy of “clean coal,” not the millions spent by the Koch brothers to elect fossil fuel friendly legislators. But that doesn’t mean that people and families and communities that have given their lives to this industry deserve to be discarded. It’s not enough to say, “don’t worry, we’ll fund some worker training programs and you can become a solar panel installer.” 

Even where there is disagreement on whether it’s time to phase out coal, or stop building new fossil fuel pipelines and export terminals, the environmental community needs to be on the front lines protecting miners’ pensions and demanding a powerful safety net to support those whose jobs are vanishing and whose communities are struggling.