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Shifting Away from Coal Toward Renewable Energy

This opinion piece appeared in the Washington Observer-Reporter on July 29, 2017 in a point / counterpoint feature about the coal industry in Pennsylvania.

Any conversation about the future of coal must be candid about a number of realities. Our energy system is changing rapidly toward clean energy and away from fossil fuel. Our political class can either lead toward economic and environmental success or continue to bury its head in the sand and be defeated. Part of the problem is the public debate on coal has been layered with myths, misdirection, and lies that have derailed a forward-looking discussion on how we harness and use energy, as well as how it impacts hardworking Americans.

First, we must discuss the reality of climate change. The facts are clear: we cannot hope to keep the world’s temperature at a safe level if we continue to rely on carbon-intensive fossil fuels like coal. The United States has already emitted more carbon pollution than any other country in history, and has a moral and ethical responsibility to do its fair share to mitigate the danger. Instead, our climate policy is rife with weakness, denial, and obstruction, rather than providing an economically beneficial pathway to a cleaner, prosperous energy future.

Second, coal remains dangerous to the communities that surround it. Burning coal releases a wide variety of cancer-causing, lung-damaging pollutants, including mercury, acid gases, and smog-forming pollutants, which result in hospitalizations and deaths. Coal mining itself permanently scars our environment and damages our land and water – just ask anyone in the old coal towns scattered around Pennsylvania. Coal isn’t clean, and we can’t forget how it has harmed generations of workers and communities.

Third, there is no such thing as a “war on coal.” Tree huggers, former presidents, and government regulations aren’t killing coal. Rather, simple economics are leading to its demise as cheaper alternatives replace it in the market. Natural gas and renewable energy are winning the day. As a result, coal industry leaders are trying to cut every corner they can find. They’re using automation to replace workers. They’re spending money they say they don’t have to lobby for even more government subsidies. And, in some high-profile cases, they have been caught cutting corners on their safety and environmental responsibilities. Underneath all of the war-on-coal rhetoric is a textbook case of industry trying to skirt its responsibilities to its workers and environment to make a few more dollars. We all pay the price.

Fourth, don’t be duped by promises of metallurgic coal. Coal has been the main source of power for our blast furnaces and steel mills, but even so, its future is not assured. Steel manufacturers, such as U.S. Steel, are already publically discussing plans to replace coal and coke used in steel mills with natural gas as a cost-cutting measure, and the rise of international carbon tariffs could limit international markets for steel made in coal-fired mills.

Fifth, political leaders are doing coal workers a disservice. Rather than recognizing that the United States is under a generational shift in energy and providing support for its workers and a path to more prosperous jobs, they’re instead providing lip service, myths, and false hope.

Policymakers should be passing legislation to rebuild old coal communities, fund reclamation of abandoned mining operations that are polluting our streams, and provide new job opportunities for coal miners. Coal workers have provided a critical service to society by lighting our homes and providing heating for our families. We should ensure that those workers are treated with respect and provided with good-paying jobs in new industries.

With the industry in a permanent state of decline, there are policy choices to be made. Doing nothing is probably the worst decision. If we take that path, we will face not only the worst effects of climate change, but the workers and the communities that rely on coal will continue to suffer.

Further subsidizing coal is an equally terrible choice. In Ohio, coal plant owners have lobbied to force consumers to pay above-market prices for coal power. Taking a similar path in Pennsylvania might keep coal plants profitable a little while longer, but will raise electricity prices. With many coal plants near the end of their expected lives, that would only be a short-term solution. When the inevitable collapse comes, the fall will be that much harder.

The best alternative is to provide real support to coal workers and provide them a path to work in next-generation energy industries. We must also account for the environmental and public health damage caused by coal and include that in the price – ending a significant subsidy to coal that it has benefitted from for more than 100 years. Pennsylvania can use that revenue from the cut subsidies to help coal communities rebuild their economies, clean up their coal piles, and provide cleaner, more prosperous jobs for its families.

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