Climate Change & The Coal Industry (4/2)

by: Kevin W

On Tuesday afternoon outside of the Environmental Protection Agency, President Trump signed an executive order reversing many Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing climate change. Flanked by coal miners and executives eager to see their industry reinvigorated, Trump promised them, “you’re going back to work.” But will they?

Trump’s order specifically takes aim at the Clean Power Plan, an EPA plan first introduced in 2014 and announced in its final form in August of 2015. Trump argues that the regulations outlined in that plan prioritize the climate over job growth but implying that Obama-era regulations are to blame for the loss of coal jobs is misleading at best. Almost immediately after the Clean Power Plan was announced it faced court challenges from multiple states. Ultimately the Supreme Court stayed its implementation pending a lower court ruling, meaning that the regulations never had a chance to be implemented. Since those regulations haven’t yet taken effect, the loss of jobs can hardly be blamed on the Clean Power Plan. So if the those regulations aren’t to blame, what is?

Coal’s Decline

Regulations will of course raise operating costs for any industry – that’s why industry leaders despise them- but the decline of the coal industry can be attributed to other factors as well.  The energy market is partly to blame: falling natural gas prices have led to less demand for coal over the past few years. And as cleaner sources of energy like solar and wind become cheaper and more efficient, coal’s decline will only hasten going forward. In addition, like the auto industry before it, coal is feeling the pain of mechanization: as technology improves, human jobs have been replaced. While we may still be decades from the coal industry’s ultimate demise, its collapse is inevitable. Technological progress will continue its forward march and utility companies will switch resources not for a love of the environment but as a prudent financial decision.

Climate Change

Which brings us back to the topic of climate change. According to scientific consensus, greenhouse emissions like carbon dioxide are the main contributors to rising global temperatures. In fact, those findings were the basis for the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which 194 countries, including the United States, agreed to limit greenhouse emissions in an effort to curb catastrophic climate change. Should Trump’s order be enacted, however, it all but assures that the United States will fail to deliver on its pledge.

The United States, once seen as a global leader in the push to combat climate change, is abdicating that role. And if the United States pulls out, what is stopping other countries from doing the same? Trump’s attitude towards climate change not only diminishes the country’s standing as a world leader, but can push the climate past the point of no return.

Climate change deniers may sneer at the idea that we are causing lasting damage, but remember that science is not political; it does not change based on beliefs and is beholden only to researched facts. Because of this, it’s important to be cognizant of false equivalencies when discussing climate change with deniers. Just because a handful of scientists disagree with the general consensus, that does not give their argument equal weight against actual facts.

Why Else Should We Care?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the environment is not even part of the regulatory equation and that climate change is not man-made. Even in that hypothetical, climate change deniers cannot refute the health hazards associated with coal. Coal dust from mining has been linked to increased respiratory problems like Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in workers. These diseases are a tangible result of exposure and cannot be easily dismissed. We already regulate toxins like lead, so if not for the environment, then regulations should be made for the well being of American citizens.

When the government eliminates regulations designed to help the planet, or allows companies to dump heavy metal mining debris into streams, it affects all of us. Add in the very real threat to the planet that the industry contributes to and these regulations seem like a no-brainer. People close to the situation, however, have a slightly different take.

The Human Element

I recently found myself in eastern Kentucky on a work trip and had the pleasure of meeting a few gentlemen with ties to the coal industry. One member of the group, Bill, had worked in coal for ten years before shifting careers. He was joined by John and Gary, and while they themselves did not work in the industry, both had family members and friends that worked in it. Of the dozens they estimated to know, only a handful were still employed as coal miners, victims of the shrinking job pool. Bill and his friends painted a picture of men and women who were singled out and vilified by the government when they were simply looking to provide for their families.

Over the past 20 years the mining jobs they knew of all but disappeared and to them, the reason for the decline was simple: it was a result of the EPA “telling people how to do their jobs.” Every new EPA regulation meant costs went up and workers were cut to balance the books. To Bill, coal was targeted unfairly. “I don’t know a single job that doesn’t pollute,” he said.

On the technological side, Bill didn’t see machines as a threat to jobs; rather they made the occupation safer and even opened up new positions. “A machine might do more than a guy, but you still need someone to operate it and people who know how to fix [the machines],” he explained.

All three admitted to caring about the environment, (“no one wants to drink poison water, obviously,” said Bill) but most regulations were seen as an overreaching attack on their communities and livelihood. There was clearly no love lost- in Bill’s eyes, the government “let these towns die.”

Mining was often the number one employer in the towns the men discussed, and when the jobs left, community members had no choice but to stay put. “No one wants to leave their home, and most can’t afford to even if they did,” John summed up.

Bill’s recommendation for the government? “Don’t forget the people. Maybe solar or nuclear is the future but we’re not there yet and these [coal miners] still need to live.”

Moving Forward

Bill was right, every industry pollutes, and coal has been targeted to a greater extent in recent years perhaps because alternatives have become more mainstream. At the same time, regulators would should remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. They need to make it clear the fight is not against the workers but for the environment. They need to offer solutions that can bridge the gap until clean energy is the number one producer of electricity in America.

According to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Donald Trump does not believe “that there is a binary choice between job creation, economic growth and caring about the environment.”

While Trump’s executive order contradicts that statement, he’s technically correct – we can do all three. The men and women of coal towns can be put to work in the clean energy sector where the jobs outlook is strong. In fact, the total number of clean energy jobs in the United States already exceeds the number in the coal industry. Trump would be better off finding ways to incentivize clean energy production in former coal towns to facilitate that transition. And of course, the clean energy industry comes with the added benefit of being inherently better for the environment, reducing the need for strict regulations on pollutants. He can help the environment, the economy, and the communities that have helped power America for decades all together.

For once, Trump would be wise to heed his own advice.

Additional Reading:

Executive Order Press Release

US Energy & Employment Report

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