What environmentalists get wrong about Big Coal

Coal is an environmental disaster, says journalist Richard Martin, but there's a human cost to its downfall

Published April 5, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

Coal has got to go. That much is undeniable. Climate change is presenting us with a tremendous, urgent threat, and coal is the dirtiest and largest single source of the fossil fuels still pouring into our atmosphere.

But while that's settled (among scientists, if not some particularly stubborn politicians), the conversation about how we're actually going to transition away from coal is just getting started. And too often left out of that discussion, says journalist Richard Martin, is the human cost of the industry's decline -- how the people, and communities, built on Big Coal's promises will be left to fare once it's no longer in the picture.

To better understand the dramatic changes afoot, Martin, who is currently the editorial director at the clean energy firm Navigant Research, traveled to the heart of coal country, in both the U.S. and China. His resulting book, "Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet," tells the stories of people living through the last days of the industry -- and of the industry's determination to not go quietly.

Salon spoke with Martin about the so-called war on coal and about how environmentalists and Republicans alike can make this necessary transition less painful. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the title of the book. It’s provocative: The "war on coal" is a phrase that’s mostly thrown around by Republicans. Do you agree with that characterization? 

People like Mitch McConnell claim there is a war on coal led by the Obama administration, and the fact is whatever you think of the administration’s policies, it’s not federal regulation that’s killing the coal industry, it is broad market forces that have been gathering for years, if not decades. The coal industry was in decline before the EPA released its clean power plan last year and the decline is going to continue beyond Barack Obama’s term in office.

I thought hard about that title before deciding to go with it. My personal opinion is that war metaphors and analogies are overused and they tend to diminish the horrors of real armed conflict. But in this case, I felt like a) that term is out there and b) there is something of a battle, a struggle, a war, if you will, going on between those who want to keep burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, and those who are bent on shutting the coal industry down. Again, whether you think it’s a good thing to limit our consumption of coal or not, the fact is there is a broad and growing consensus that we need to move off of coal. That is true in China, which is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, it’s true in the U.S. at a national level, and it’s increasingly true even at a state level in the places where the coal industry has traditionally been the mainstay of the economy.

Again, the political side of this is not as relevant to me as broad forces that are really forcing us to reckon with what we want to become of the way in which we get our electricity going forward. To play out the metaphor, the coal industry is an empire with no single emperor. But believe me, I’ve spent the last two years looking at a lot of coal plants and a lot of coal mines and it is an empire that stretches worldwide. It is a huge global industry, it accounts for still almost 40 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S., which is down from nearly half just a few years ago. It accounts for three-quarters of the electricity in places like China and it is something of an existential struggle.

This is not a book of advocacy or environmental policy or technology. The premise of the book is if we don’t do something to drastically reduce our consumption of coal, there is no hope of limiting global climate change. My view is either we shut down the coal industry, or it’s going to shut us down. What the book tries to do is take a look at the human drama and the human costs associated with this effort to transform our power system and really, if not shut down, then certainly limit our ongoing consumption of coal.

One of the things the book really gets at is that people on the environmental side who think about this as a war see big coal as the enemy -- but there perhaps isn't enough attention paid to the people who have jobs in the coal industry, who are being affected by the industry’s decline. How did that perspective change the way that you’re thinking about these issues?

I think that’s a great point and I’m glad it comes out in the book. I think what’s happening in the environmental community is there is a growing awareness of the cost of making this huge shift. Certainly the Obama administration just in the last few months has come up with a few initiatives to try to achieve what many people call a just transition -- in other words, to provide some form of hope going forward for the people in these communities. I’ve been in places like Holmes Mill, Kentucky, and let me assure you, there is nothing there except coal. When the coal industry shuts down, as it has already done in many places in Appalachia, there’s nothing for these people to do except get jobs at Wal-Mart or Burger King. Those places have been abandoned and, again, I am all for shifting away from coal but we can’t do it unless we find a way to provide jobs and hope for the people in these communities that have been dependent on coal for decades. As one economic development official in West Virginia said to me, “Google is not coming to southwest West Virginia.” Google is not coming to eastern Kentucky. There’s not an economic savior on the horizon.

What there are, and what I write about a lot in the book, are a lot of grass-roots efforts to come up with new ways for these people to make their living and provide for their families, whether it’s farming hemp, whether it’s turning mountaintop removal sites into industrial parks that include solar power and so on. I wouldn't say these efforts have borne a lot of fruit so far, but they’re certainly going on at the community and the county and the state level and that’s where we need to focus our resources. When people like Mitch McConnell stand up in the U.S. Senate and decry the Obama administration’s war on coal, they’re not really helping their constituents. Every hour or dollar spent on fighting the war on coal is a resource that doesn’t go to really helping these people in places where the coal industry is not coming back. That realization has taken hold at the community level, it hasn’t necessarily taken hold in the U.S. Congress.

We focus a lot on convincing people that coal is contributing to climate change, that climate change is a problem. But if we’re looking for political compromises, or just to not have someone like McConnell fighting every single effort to clean up coal or cut down on its use, it seems the more pertinent argument is just convincing people that this isn't going to destroy them in the process.

I agree with that. It’s certainly true that the people in these communities are angry and bitter towards the federal government, towards the Obama administration in particular, etc. At the same time, I had plenty of conversations with people who have worked in the coal industry and live in these places, but are starting to acknowledge that this is not the future and we’ve got to find some other way to provide for these families. I’m based in Boulder, Colorado, and I went over to Craig, which is a coal town in the Yampa Valley on the western slope of Colorado, and its mayor worked for 30 years in the coal mine there outside of Craig. But he has worked with local officials and a company called Clean Energy Collective to bring a solar garden to Craig that is literally in the shadows of the Twentymile Coal plant. He’s one of the people who is saying, look, you can submit to these changes or you can get ahead of them. You can drive the car or you can get dragged behind the bumper, and we don’t want to get dragged. He’s one of those people who is by no means a fan of Barack Obama or his energy policies, but who is grappling with the changes that he sees happening around him and is being realistic about the way forward.

You mentioned before how coal is, at least in the U.S., an industry that is already on the decline. That isn’t Obama’s fault the way some Republicans suggest that it is. What does that suggest to you about whose job it is to start thinking about different ways forward for communities that are still dependent on coal?

I think it’s definitely the job of Barack Obama and the head of the EPA and the congressional delegations from these places. Again, it’s very interesting to see the dichotomy that’s happening in the environmental movement. If you talked to, let’s say, Bill McKibben, whose work I respect quite a bit, but I don’t think he’s very focused on what’s going to happen to the people in Holmes Mill, Kentucky, when the divestment movement really spreads. I think somebody like Bill -- who, by the way, contributed a very nice blurb for my book -- if you ask him he would say, yeah, we need to do something for these people, we need to figure out a way forward for these communities. But I think organizations like the Sierra Club have begun to think hard about this and have begun in certain limited ways to incorporate that into, for instance, their Beyond Coal Campaign. It is the job of the people who are working to change our energy system to think about a just transition, but in my opinion, where it’s really going to come from, again, is at the community level. You can offer all the retraining programs at the local community colleges that you want across Appalachia, but the fact is it’s only going to happen by those people getting together and figuring out what are the competitive advantages we have, what are the resources other than coal that we have that we can draw on to really create an economic future in these places.

What’s going to spur that acknowledgment of the fact that it’s time to move away from coal?

I’ve thought a lot about this question and I had a lot of really interesting conversations about this paradox, particularly in Appalachia. But I would say across most of what I call “Coal Land,” particularly in Appalachia, coal has brought jobs but not prosperity. If you drive through some of these coal towns you will see that the houses are still the same houses that were built by the coal company in the 1920s and 1930s. They’re these row houses and they’ve been upgraded a little bit, but it’s basically the same structure. What’s changed is outside there are big pickup trucks, brand-new, fancy pickup trucks, most of which were bought on credit. If you’re a repossession man, it’s a great time to be in business in places like that.

I sound like I’m joking about it, but what I’m getting at is there’s this odd, cultural double-mindedness about the coal industry that in many ways has been the economic lifeline for a lot of these places, but at the same time has kept these people in a state of dependency and inability, inflexibility, that prevents them from adapting to economic change the way people in California, in Arkansas, my home state, and Colorado are used to adapting to these broad, global economic shifts. They haven't had to do that in Eastern Kentucky because these coal jobs have still been there generation after generation and that is now changing. I had more than one person say what we have to do first is change the mind-set, this mind-set of dependency on an industry that has brought you a well-paying job, a $70,000 a year job in a mine with just a high school education, but has also brought economic dependency and environmental disaster and other broader effects that limit the ability of these people in these communities to adapt to the new reality.

It’s tough. It’s something that’s perhaps harder to see  here than somewhere like China, where air pollution is affecting everybody.

I think that’s true. Almost a third of the book is about China. I spent three weeks traveling around some fairly remote parts of China and the fact is, to a large degree, it’s the same case there. There are whole cities of 1 or 2 million people in China that are all based around a huge coal complex of mines and industrial plants and power plants. The central government in Beijing is clearly intent on shifting China’s economy, producing less coal, burning less coal, moving to industries that are less energy intensive and so on. But they’ve got a huge problem on their hands that is multiplied beyond what we’re facing here, because so much of the economy is dependent on cheap energy from coal and so many people are dependent on these huge coal mines and power plants for their living. China has based its whole social system on this bargain between the people: the government has basically said we will deliver economic growth of 10 to 12 percent a year, and consumer goods and a certain amount of freedom in the economic sphere, in return for your acquiescence to an authoritarian government and your political silence, as it were. That bargain is breaking down as the environmental costs of, particularly, coal become more and more apparent and the citizens of China become less and less willing to accept the environmental disasters that coal brings on.

To go back to the U.S., something that really stuck out to me was the reminder that we are all complicit in coal dependency. For someone like me, reading the book outside of coal country and not being as familiar with these dynamics, it does seem like something that is often left out of the conversation. Do you see a way to build more of an awareness of how we’re all benefiting from coal in some ways and feeling its harm in other ways? Finding a way to somehow leverage that to find ways to build communication between environmental groups that say we need to get rid of coal and these communities that do need a better way out of it?

I do think that people are starting to make those connections that you’re talking about. They’re starting to draw a line between what happens when I flip this switch or run my blender or dry my hair and where is that energy coming from, and what are the broader social costs of me using that energy? Certainly when I was growing up you never thought about that. You just turned the switch on and the lights came on. I think what the work of people like Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club and many others is doing is helping people to make those connections and to say we want more choice, we want to be able to determine, just like the local food movement is people basically saying I want to know what’s in the food I eat, and where it’s coming from. People are starting to make those same connections with the energy system and saying I want to know where this is coming from and I want greater choice.

There’s a parallel development that I talk a little bit about in the book, which is that the declining price of solar panels and the innovative financing programs that have been developed over the last few years is accelerating the spread of distributed power generation, particularly solar power, at a much faster rate than utilities ever expected. So the whole business model of the utility sector in this country is undergoing this huge transformation and I guarantee you, in the boardrooms of big utilities across this country they are talking about this right now and saying, how are we going to make a living five or 10 years from now when every time somebody puts a solar panel on their roof it erodes our revenues and it becomes one less person that we get to serve with the lowest-cost source of power generation that we can find? So that’s another huge, unanswered question, is how are we going to help the utility sector, the providers of our electricity, arrive at a more sustainable business model that is going to not be based on cheap coal? That is happening in the U.S., it’s happening at a much faster rate in Germany, for instance, Europe’s largest economy, because they have made a commitment to shutting down their coal industry while also shutting down nuclear. The big utilities in Germany are losing money at an incredible rate. I haven’t seen a plan ahead for how those types of companies are going to make money going forward. So that’s another huge question that this whole larger shift that I’m talking about raises.

You see the need for a bit more sympathy for the energy companies, maybe?

That’s the thing, I’ve been writing about the oil and gas industry for a long time, and it just struck me 20 years ago that demonizing the people who supply our gasoline and our electricity is not really that useful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of Peabody Energy, the big coal miner, or of ExxonMobil, and I think they’ve engaged in very unethical, duplicitous campaigns to minimize the effects of fossil fuels and to deny climate change, etc. But at the same time, as you said, we’re all complicit in that. I like driving a car, and I like having electricity in my house to run my computer. So I’m not prepared to give up the modern technology that I’ve come to rely on, and I don’t think most people are either. So again, the flip side of Mitch McConnell making speeches about the war on coal is the environmental community demonizing the fossil fuel companies and the coal miners. I think some form of dialogue through this transition is going to be necessary, because ExxonMobil is not going away. Peabody Energy and Arch Coal may be going away, but it’s going to be a 20-year process.

By Lindsay Abrams

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