I sat engrossed in Coal Country during last month’s American Conservation Film Festival in Shepherdstown. The film documents a range of perspectives on the issue of surface mining for coal in Appalachia, what many have come to call mountaintop removal. Interviews and footage depict miners expressing pride in their heritage; locals struggling to navigate a range of assaults upon their quality of life, health, jobs, and sense of community; and coal company representatives, lawyers, citizen activists, and elected officials each interjecting their own sometimes narrow view of the issue. The film stirred something within me.
Buried within the debate over coal – one often brimming with emotion and exaggeration – there are a few solid truths. Coal has been and remains a key driver of America’s economic engine. Coal-fired power plants generate over 50 percent of our electricity: coal “keeps the lights on” as the pro-coal folks are fond of saying. Coal is plentiful. At current rates of consumption, the United States has enough coal to last us the next 200 years.
Coal mining provides jobs, although surface mining employs fewer workers than deep mining operations. We owe a debt of gratitude to coal miners and their families for the toil and sacrifice they face every day in carving our heat, light and power out of the earth.
And it is undeniable that the mining, processing and burning of coal is hazardous to environmental and human health. Coal significantly contributes to the destruction of natural ecosystems, to serious health concerns among those who live proximate to mines and power plants, and to the build-up of harmful chemicals – mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides – in our atmosphere, soil and water.
Among these truths lies the challenge and complexity of coal. It is historically, economically, culturally and environmentally entwined with who we are. As a nation addicted to cheap energy, as well as one that places a high value on even a tenuous sense of job security, coal seems to offer a fairly straight path into the future. But as a nation at the crossroads environmentally, it is clear that we cannot afford to pay the real costs, rapidly becoming past due, of traveling this path.
How do we honor coal and those who have labored to make it available to us while acknowledging the necessity of transitioning to a different energy future? It was coincidental that in the days following my viewing of Coal Country, I learned of House Concurrent Resolution 208 introduced by West Virginia’s Congressional delegation. This resolution seeks to establish National Miner’s Day to commemorate the work and sacrifice of miners past and present, as well as demonstrate support for the jobs of miners well into the future.
“I contend that we have an obligation to do all we can to ensure that our miners simply have work. We need to pay acute attention to the effects that the decisions we make in Washington will have on the men and women, the families, and the communities back home who have, for generations, provided the natural energy resources that fuel America. These hard-working, selfless, earnest men and women, their livelihoods, their way of life, and the future of their families and their communities are at stake,” proclaimed Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) who introduced the resolution.
We should absolutely honor and celebrate miners and the coal heritage that has made this country strong. We should consider the livelihoods of mining families and communities as we make decisions for our future. But we don’t owe them a future that mirrors the past. Coal has played a vital role in crafting our American story, but so too has the capacity for adapting to changing times and the drive to leverage new opportunities and possibilities.
No, the future is something we owe to our nation, to our planet, to ourselves. And choosing a new course into that future doesn’t have to diminish the past or disrespect those who helped shape it. In all of this, I’ve been asking what can I, as one individual, do with regard to this issue? Coal Country offered little insight into this for me; perhaps it was trying to provoke this question as opposed to provide its answer.
Clearly we’re talking about a transition away from, as opposed to an abrupt abandonment of, our coal-based energy infrastructure. We each have a role in easing this transition forward. We begin by simply using less electricity, the most common form by which coal touches most of our lives. We each know how to do this, though we sometimes fail to act upon the singular importance of taking the required steps. We then can support new energy opportunities. The technologies exist, they just need more openness of mind and wallet to bring them into the mainstream.
But in taking these steps toward reducing our reliance on coal, let us still consider those whose lives will be most significantly affected by such a shift. We should remember the miners – with a national day in their honor, yes; but also with a commitment to support their transition into new jobs and new opportunities, contributing to a brighter, cleaner, healthier future for us all. That’s the Congressional resolution I’d like to see.
Jeff Feldman runs GreenPath Consulting, a green building consulting firm. Jeff and his wife, Kristin Alexander, live in a strawbale home in Berkeley County. You can reach Jeff at GreenPathConsulting@ gmail.com.