Con: Crony capitalism can't save coal country

Con: Crony capitalism can't save coal country

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Basav Sen


In the earliest days of the Trump administration, coal baron Robert Murray wrote a check for $300,000 to the new president’s inaugural committee. It was, essentially, a bribe.

After sending his lavish gift, Murray hand-delivered a policy agenda to the administration to deregulate the coal industry, which the White House has tried hard to implement. Call it a quid pro quo.

President Trump has since claimed that coal is “back.” The data show otherwise.

The United States is producing less coal, burning less coal and employing fewer people to mine coal than almost ever before. There are about 30,000 fewer coal jobs than a decade ago, while coal’s share of electric power generation plummeted from 48% in 2008 to 27.5% in 2018.

And Murray? He just filed for bankruptcy. The death of coal is inevitable, and no amount of crony capitalism can save it.

There are simply cheaper — and safer — alternatives.

A new coal-fired facility will generate electricity at a cost of between $98 and $104 per megawatt hour — compared to $46 for natural gas, $56 for wind and $60 for solar. What’s more, most states have passed legislation requiring utilities to get more power from renewables.

Far from a noble failure, Trump’s failed attempt to bring back coal has racked up a terrible human cost.

Trump’s own EPA estimates that his proposed replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan — which regulated greenhouse gases from power generation — will kill up to 1,600 additional people a year from increased air pollution. Then there’s the proposed deregulation of coal ash, a known carcinogen that contaminates air and water.

Of course, burning coal also generates greenhouse gases — just when the world scientific community is warning of the need to reduce these emissions rapidly.

The truth is, the Trump administration’s blank checks for the coal industry are nothing short of a declaration of war against public health — and the future of the planet — all to benefit a few coal oligarchs.

Trump claims his agenda benefits coal workers, whom he loves to use as props. But their inflation-adjusted wages have actually decreased over Trump’s term in office. Meanwhile, black lung — a debilitating and fatal illness — is on the rise.

The federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, paid for by a coal excise tax, provides disability benefits to miners who don’t get them from employers (who routinely refuse to pay disability).

But the fund faces shortfalls, and last year Congress made it worse by cutting the excise tax rate in half in response to coal company pressure.

Coal country is suffering. When miners are sick, struggling or unemployed, their reduced spending hurts local businesses. When local tax revenues fall, the jobs of schoolteachers and other public servants are threatened.

Resurrecting coal is the wrong way to address this suffering. It exacerbates pollution and literally kills people. And it’s doomed to fail, leaving coal country with nothing but a broken landscape, a public health crisis and poverty.

What coal country needs is a just transition from a corporate-controlled extractive economy to a community-controlled regenerative economy, something organizations on the ground are already working on.

An inspiring example is an initiative by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization in Kentucky, to retrofit homes for energy efficiency, saving people money while creating jobs — lots of jobs. Energy efficiency jobs nationwide outnumber fossil fuel jobs by two to one, and are growing between six and seven times faster.

Another promising job creator is environmental restoration.

Much of Appalachia, for example, has been scarred by mountaintop removal, a destructive coal mining method linked to cardiovascular disease, birth defects and cancer, not to mention polluted rivers and headless mountains. Many good jobs could be created to restore these landscapes under a Green New Deal.

It’s time to reject the false, harmful promise of “bringing back coal.” There’s so much important work to be done restoring rivers, forests and communities to health and vitality. That’s the work that deserves federal support — not old coal barons trying to make their last buck.

One way or another, the coal industry will abandon coal country eventually. The question is what’s left behind. With a little planning now, we can replace it with a community-driven, bottom-up Green New Deal — with justice at its core.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He wrote this for


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