Life after coal

Can we move away from fossil fuels without destroying the communities that rely on them? Sam Adler Bell looks to the devastated US coalfields of Appalachia.

In Magoffin County, eastern Kentucky, where Lily Gardner was born, people sometimes play a game when they’re driving on the highway: spot the coal seam. ‘If you’re looking for them, you can still spot a stripe of coal in the mountains there,’ Lily says. ‘People point to that and say, “Look, we still have coal. We could still be mining.”’ The last coalmine in Magoffin County closed in 2015.

Lily is a 15-year-old activist with Sunrise Movement, the prodigious youth climate organization which has, in a matter of months, managed to mainstream the idea that the climate crisis requires a radical transformation of the US economy.

She lives in Lexington now, Kentucky’s second-largest city, but she grew up deep in coal country. And Sunrise, Lily says, though hell-bent on eliminating fossil fuels, insists on empathy for the community she comes from. The movement’s diverse young leaders, Lily says, ‘know what it feels like to be left out of the conversation’.

A just transition

Coal emits the most carbon per unit of energy of any fossil fuel. If climate catastrophe is to be avoided, most of the world’s remaining coal reserves will need to be left in the ground. The prospects for this are different depending where you look. In Asia, where rapidly urbanizing countries seek cheap energy, coal demand has spiked. In the US, coal has been on its way to obsolescence for three decades. Since 2010, the number of coal-fired power plants in the US has dropped from 580 to 350. At its peak, in 1923, there were 883,000 workers in the coal industry. Today, there are 53,000.

Despite Trump’s vigorous campaign promise to bring back coal, government analysts expect US coal production, consumption and exports to continue their descent. As progressives grapple with how to devise and achieve Sunrise’s ‘Green New Deal’ – without igniting a backlash among those disenfranchised by the loss of fossil-fuel related jobs – the experience of coal’s decline in the American southeast is instructive.

In the coalfields of Appalachia – once the cradle of US coal production – the decline has been especially precipitous. Years before natural gas and renewables started taking a bite out of coal’s market share, mechanization had already vastly reduced the labour required for extraction, destroying the unions along the way. ‘There is not one lump of coal being mined in Kentucky by a member of the United Mine Workers union,’ says Carl Shoupe, a disabled miner who worked as a UMW organizer for 14 years.

Coal employment fell 27 per cent between 2005 and 2015, with losses concentrated in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Central Appalachia is now one of the poorest regions in the country with one of its worst opioid epidemics.

The Green New Deal being championed by Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and pilloried by conservatives as a dangerous Stalinist fantasy – aims to ‘achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers’.

A staple part of environmental justice rhetoric since the 2010s, ‘just transition’ refers to the demand – or at least the aspiration – that those whose livelihoods are jeopardized by the transition to a low-carbon economy are protected, taken care of, remunerated in some way.

And, as candid climate activists will tell you, a just transition isn’t only a moral imperative; it’s a strategic necessity. If Sunrise Movement and its allies hope to summon the social forces necessary to achieve a New Deal-style upheaval of the US economy, they will need the support of working people and their organizations. Without a credible plan, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell’s recent assertion that the ‘aim’ of the Green New Deal is to ‘put every coalminer out of work’ won’t just be fear-mongering; it will be true.

Workers made to shoulder the burden of climate policy are likely to fight back. The Gilets Jaunes emerged in France last year in response to a hike in fuel tax. And as Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the German Environment Ministry, said at a United Nations climate meeting on 15 November 2016, ‘If you organize the transition in a way people feel “I’m left behind”, they will follow illiberal forces we see all over the world.’

A week earlier, Donald Trump had won the state of Kentucky by a 30-point margin, carrying all of the state’s rural counties.

‘A fancy funeral’

King Coal’s dethroning has been a slow-motion patricide and, perversely, its abused subjects have been administering CPR. In the mid 2000s, the coal industry kicked off the Friends of Coal campaign to convince miners and their families that coal was still the best, or at least the only, game in town. It sought to unite coal bosses and their workers against the real enemy: out-of-state environmentalists who want to destroy not just an economy but a way of life. And it worked.

‘Without the union in there, the bosses filled up their heads with whatever they liked,’ says Shoupe.

In its dying years, the coal business has functioned like a mafia protection racket. Coal wreaked havoc all over the region, levelled communities, poisoned land and afflicted generations of miners with black lung; then it turned around and said, ‘Look at you, you’re suffering, you need our protection.’ Tarence Ray, an activist and co-host of Whitesburg-based podcast Trillbilly Workers Party, summarized the message of Friends of Coal like this: ‘Put up with the boulders and the poisoned water and the cancer if you want to see the coal jobs stick around.’

But it’s not all Stockholm syndrome. As even the most committed environmentalist in eastern Kentucky will admit, coalmining was once a well-paying job with union benefits and some degree of social status. It was ‘man’s’ work; it was dangerous and it was necessary.

Shoupe almost lost his life to coalmining after his body was crushed by a falling boulder, hospitalizing him for a year. For the past decade, as a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots progressive group in the region, he has been fighting to replace the coal industry with something better. In Harlan County, where he lives and was born, people call him a turncoat. Yet he speaks with pride about the way it once was. ‘Hell, we won two World Wars and kept the lights on in the world for a hundred years,’ Shoupe says. Tom Sexton, former organizer for Sierra Club of Eastern Kentucky and another Trillbilly co-host, put it this way: ‘They powered the modern world into existence and then got left behind by it.’

Friends of Coal-style campaigns are successful because workers don’t really believe there’s an alternative. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the architects of the Green New Deal (GND), is aware of the challenge: ‘We need to be able to tell them what’s on the other side,’ she said on a recent episode of Jacobin’s podcast The Dig. Otherwise, as the leader of America’s largest federation of unions, Richard Trumka, once put it: ‘Just transition is just an invitation to a fancy funeral.’

Overlooked America. Johnny Noble sits in the trailer of his uncle, Mose Noble, in Owsley County, Kentucky, where 45 per cent of people live below the poverty line. A former chimney sweeper, Mose’s trailer has no electricity or running water. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty

Prisons for mines

Unlike the mountains of the American West, which shoot up harshly and break the sky, the Appalachians are made up of miles and miles of craggy folds of earth. Coal seams cut through the granite mountains like em-dashes – jet-black stripes of geological time. Over the course of King Coal’s 100-year reign, mining companies devised a variety of ways to extract: tunnelling, strip-mining and, by the 1990s, full-scale ‘mountain-top removal’. As of 2009, around 470,000 hectares of the Appalachian Mountains – home to the most ecologically diverse hardwood forests and streams on the continent – had been surface-mined for coal, and over 500 mountains significantly reshaped or levelled.

There have been attempts at reparations. Since 1977, when the first significant federal coalmining regulations were passed, coal companies have been paying into the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund. For many decades, the money sat dormant. In recent years, community groups have successfully lobbied for dispersals from the AML fund to support initiatives such as building public parks and athletic fields on flattened mine lands, wildlife and wetland reserves, farms and pastures.

Some of the biggest dispersals from the fund, however, have been more controversial. In August 2018, Letcher County – where coal employment dropped from 2,200 jobs in 1990 to 81 at the beginning of 2018 – was awarded $4.5 million from the AML fund for a water infrastructure project. The congressman for the region, Harold ‘Hal’ Rogers, largely took credit for securing the money. ‘Eastern Kentucky’s AML Pilot Projects are doing exactly what they were designed to do,’ Rogers said, ‘reuse our land to create good-paying jobs for our families and help boost our struggling Appalachian economy.’

Letcher, like other coalfield counties, has seen its water table devastated by mining run-off and the industry practice of injecting coal slurry into the ground. But the AML project won’t help the vast majority of Letcher county’s 22,000 residents. Rather, the funds will be used to run water and sewage lines to a 1,200-bed federal prison – another Hal Rogers pet project – to be built atop a former surface mine. Only 100 additional homes will benefit.

In nearby Martin County, another federal prison built on a former mining site is slowly sinking into the blast-softened earth. The county recently requested a further $2 million in AML funds to improve the water supply for the sinking prison, a nearby airport and Honey Branch Industrial Park. Meanwhile, the residents of Martin County are forced to drink water that smells like diesel fuel.

There’s a reason portions of Appalachia have begun to resemble one continuous prison colony: prisons are jobs. ‘The line that’s repeated time and again is that this is stable and recession-proof economic development – that prisons don’t pack up and leave the way a factory might,’ Judah Schept, associate professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, told the Huffington Post. ‘That’s a dubious, if not outright disingenuous, line.’

Counties in Kentucky where prisons have been built – Clay, Martin, McCreary – are still among the poorest in the state. The Letcher County project, barely under way, is already in jeopardy: the Trump administration, hot off the passage of criminal justice reform designed to reduce the federal prison population by 53,000 in 10 years, doesn’t want to build it.

Other piecemeal initiatives have not always encouraged optimism either. Projects funded by foundation grants and micro-financing have taught coalminers to code, to raise bees or grow hemp – boutique solutions that make nice brochure copy but are not necessarily designed and implemented by the coalfield communities themselves. ‘We’ve been the proving ground for this stuff because we’ve got so little to lose here,’ Sexton says.

Appalachia’s experience stands as a warning for the GND’s architects and advocates. In the absence of fundamental, systemic change, the results of transition will be more of the same: more poor people in cages and more misery.

‘Unless you think about equity and design for it in a systemic way,’ acknowledges Gunn-Wright, ‘you’re going to get inequitable outcomes, because you’re putting a new structure on top of uneven ground.’

And in eastern Kentucky, there’s plenty of uneven ground.

Work to be done

The flipside of the decades of devastation wrought by coalmining is that there’s plenty of work to be done.

‘We’ve got mountains that have been destroyed. Rivers and creeks that have been ploughed,’ Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies tells me. ‘And we’ve got a lot of people who’re in trouble, dealing with addiction and disenfranchisement.’

While the details of the Green New Deal have yet to be worked out, it is, in essence, a jobs programme. Aside from repairing coal’s damage, achieving net-zero carbon emissions will require a wholesale revamp of the energy grid, major construction of renewable energy infrastructure and a massive mobilization to retrofit buildings for resilience and efficiency. To deliver this Herculean task, the GND envisions prioritizing hiring those displaced from the fossil-fuel sector. It should encourage more projects such as a plan to build a 100-megawatt solar farm on Bent Mountain, a former coal­mine in Pike County.

‘Just transition is a fuzzy term. It’s like a Rorschach test,’ says Richard Becker, an organizer for Local 32BJ, a branch of Service Employees International Union, in Louisville, Kentucky. ‘People see in it whatever they want to see.’ Where Hal Rogers saw prisons, Becker sees ‘family-sustaining’ union jobs building a green economy. At the time of writing, his union, which is headquartered in New York City, is the only one in the US to endorse the Green New Deal resolution.

‘We can’t rely on Ocasio-Cortez or other leaders in Washington to define just transition for us,’ says Becker. ‘Any approach that’s top-down, that’s not rooted in conversations with impacted communities, is just not going to have any credibility.’ Becker’s union and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth are planning a series of community meetings to decide what their members want.

Tom Sexton agrees. ‘We’ve been hillbilly guinea pigs for the “just transition” for years now,’ he says. ‘We’ve been given a lot of bad choices: prisons or landfills. Let’s put people to work fixing what needs to be fixed.’