Coal Tattoo

It’s been about 15 years ago now. I was at an environmental journalism conference, attending a lunch session about climate change that included representatives of some of the big national and international environmental groups, along with a few industry people and some scientists.  The environmental groups were, of course, rightly making their case — as they continue to today —  that urgent action was needed to deal with carbon dioxide emissions

This was a long time ago and I was younger and probably even dumber than I am now. But I tried several times to engage these folks about what they thought a national climate policy should include in the way of economic, educational, or other help for coalfield communities where any mandated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly mean a significant decrease in about the only kind of good-paying jobs around.

Well, you would have thought I was from Mars. I mean, some folks were reasonably arguing that they were environmental groups. It was their job to work to protect the environment, public health and all that stuff. Their role in the process wasn’t to develop economic transition policies. They weren’t against those things necessarily. It just wasn’t their passion, and they didn’t think it was their job. But some folks were more hostile to my queries. They lectured me about how evil coal-mining was, and how they just didn’t understand why anyone in West Virginia wouldn’t welcome a complete end to the practice. Those folks had never been here. They certainly hadn’t been to a coal mine. They never came out and said so, but I certainly walked away feeling like they didn’t really care much what happened in places like Logan County, W.Va., as long as they got some sort of climate policy enacted.

I’ve been replaying those discussions a little in my mind this morning, and looking back at a piece that David Roberts wrote for Grist called, Should the feds bail out coal miners?  The piece was a follow-up to an earlier post he wrote called Democrats: Coal Country is just not that into you.

Now, let me make a disclaimer: I don’t really know David Roberts. Never met him. I do read his stuff all the time — and I certainly envy his great adventure taking a year away from social media. I’m a fan of his work. And I’m absolutely not trying to say that David Roberts doesn’t care about people in places like Logan County. From what I read, he just doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy. Far from it.

But I found his piece yesterday to not be nearly as thoughtful as I’ve come to expect from him. As he said on Twitter, maybe that’s just because I disagree with him about it.  But he wrote himself that it was “all pretty cursory” and just “idle musings,” and that he hoped what he wrote would get a discussion going. You should go read what he wrote, and maybe think about commenting.

David Roberts makes some good points. For example, he writes that some of the broad sort of New Deal programs that might really jump-start an economic transition in the Appalachian coalfields have little chance of getting through Congress right now. He points out that coal miners aren’t the only workers hurting in this country, and recommends broader programs that will help all workers, not just miners.


In other ways, his piece misses the mark. For example, there’s an almost in passing remark about how “there’s a lot of corruption” in coalfield communities, as if Appalachia is the only place where public officials sometimes funnel government money to their buddies. And he glosses over public opinion polls (see here, here, here and here) that show West Virginians aren’t nearly as opposed to things like clean energy and diversifying the economy as the outside world makes us out to be.

I’m also not sure that David really has a handle — not that I really do myself — on all of the things that are going on, somewhat under the radar and led by local residents, to try to move forward a more diverse economy in Appalachia. He notes the Appalachian Regional Development Initiative, but not some other important things like the Kentucky SOAR program or Create West Virginia or the West Virginia Community Development HUB or the Central Appalachian Prosperity Project, or the great work by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy or Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Initiative. One friend has pointed out to me recently that, partly because so much of this is being done without leadership from elected officials or government agencies, the public relations for the efforts don’t always clearly tie them all together and show the progress that they are making. We in the local media need to do a better job with that.

And then there’s this from David’s piece:

I wrote yesterday that coal country is largely lost to Democrats, and that’s fine; they don’t need it to put together consistent national majorities.

Lots of people (via Twitter and email) complained that of course those voters are going to the GOP, since at least the GOP offers them sympathy on culture-war issues, while the Democrats offer them nothing. Why should they vote Dem?

Often paired with such complaints is the notion that Dems ought to propose some kind of large-scale federal program to ease the transition of miners and their families away from coal — a bold, populist, New Deal-style development program that would show coal miners (and other rural whites) that Dems care about them … 

… The kinds of things proposed by the Appalachian Transition folks are great. But the largely Republican local and state officials in these areas hate Obama and the federal government (despite living off its largesse for years). I doubt they would welcome a grand Big Government plan to completely reshape the region.


Now, the last time I checked, West Virginia’s governor was a Democrat. The Legislature is controlled by Democrats. Both of our U.S. Senators are Democrats (for now, anyway). Maybe they sometimes sound like (and vote like) Republicans. But that’s kind of part of the point that I and others were making in response to David’s first piece. The push for clean energy from President Obama has without question hurt the popularity of local Democrats in the coalfields. Folks like longtime Rep. Nick Rahall are fighting to distance themselves from the national party’s leader and, largely, from its agenda.

Including some sort of coalfield economic diversification program in the Obama clean energy program — and in the agenda of national progressive organizations that back Obama and the EPA — would help coalfield Democrats politically. Would it magically and immediately reverse the Red State trends in West Virginia? Of course not. But it would provide some ammunition for local Democrats. It’s pretty hard to convince a coal miner in West Virginia that you care about them when your base  of supporters — groups like the Sierra Club — celebrate every time another coal-fired power plant closes, putting more miners out of work.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka knows this. As he explained in a speech two years ago:

ObamaNow, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.

The GOP’s career campaign consultants have played on this with great success, really defeating the Democrats for the hearts and minds of Appalachian residents. That political problem is partly caused by a policy problem: Democrats are proposing crucial environmental protections, without likewise proposing programs to help the communities that would be hurt. And their celebratory response is like kicking someone when they are down.

A lot of the Democratic woes here are self-inflicted. For example, very few Democratic candidates make the point — something that the late Sen. Byrd and Sen. Rockefeller did say — that coal is on the decline in Southern West Virginia regardless of what EPA does. When I tried to ask Secretary of State-Senate candidate Natalie Tennant about that a few months ago, she acted like she had no idea what I was talking about.

Early on in the Obama administration, there were indications that the president and his team wanted to deal with Appalachia more fairly. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched its crackdown — such as it was — on mountaintop removal, the EPA press release promised:

The Federal agencies will also work in coordination with appropriate regional, state, and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities. This interagency effort will have a special focus on stimulating clean enterprise and green jobs development, encouraging better coordination among existing federal efforts, and supporting innovative new ideas and initiatives.

Obama Mine ExplosionJust try to get the EPA or the White House to talk about this stuff now.  The response doesn’t inspire confidence that this is part of the program. Even when President Obama put forth some strong ideas, such as giving more federal Abandoned Mine Land money back to the states that most need it to both clean up coal’s messes and create jobs in the process, West Virginia leaders wouldn’t support them. And while some Obama initiatives in the mine safety arena (see here, here and here) are hugely important to coalfield communities, the last time we really heard the president himself talk about protecting miner health and safety was when he memorialized the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster victims.

A central point of David’s first piece was that the Democrats shouldn’t worry about coalfield voters, because they can win the White House without them:

At some point, Dems have to make the inevitable pivot and embrace the coalition they have, the one that’s growing, rather than the shrinking coalition they have all but lost. They have to listen to the hopes of the young people, minorities, single women, and educated professionals who vote for them rather than the fears of the rural whites who no longer do. They have to stop paying ritual obeisance to coal and take up the fight against climate change in earnest. Their new coalition wants progressive action.

The other side of that coin is that coalfield residents need to understand that the pro-coal vote just isn’t enough to carry the day anymore in national elections (see my coverage of this here and here). The coal industry in particular might want to keep this fact in mind the next time it thinks crying “war on coal” is the best approach to winning the presidency.

But like it or not, each coal-producing state still gets two U.S. Senators — and if progressives or Democrats want to get anything done legislatively on energy or environmental issues, they’re going to have to make deals with those coal-state representatives.

I probably shouldn’t go on so much about what David Roberts wrote. This response is probably longer than what it’s responding to. And it really wasn’t as cursory a piece as he made it out to be. It’s well worth reading.

But what bothered me as much as anything was a string of social media posts from some folks who read both of David’s pieces and responded with something along the lines of: Well, those dumb folks in Appalachian vote for the Republicans, so they get what they deserve. And these posts were from people who I’m sure, if they stop and think about it, know better and don’t really think that. There’s an element of blaming the victim, and of cultural elitism, that strikes me as unworthy of my friends in the progressive community. It’s certainly not the sort of thinking that led to passage of landmark legislation a generation ago to improve coal mine safety, provide black lung benefits, regulate strip mining, and force the coal industry to clean up many of its own messes.

Some environmental group leaders do somehow manage to mention the need for an economic transition in the coalfields once in a while, and even the Sierra Club has in some places tried hard to work with communities on these issues, and they have been working in West Virginia on important issues about the diversity of our energy portfolio and improvements in energy efficiency.  But when I asked Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign not long ago about her group’s plan for creating green jobs in places like West Virginia, she made this point:

Because clean energy development is largely driven by state policy, it has been my experience that states are more likely to lag behind in clean energy development and jobs when coal and fossil fuel interests consistently run the table at the state legislature. In West Virginia, for example, we used to have modest tax credits for homeowners who put solar on their rooftops or installed electric vehicle chargers at homes with solar. Those incentives were eliminated, once solar got some traction and people started using the credits, and those I’ve talked to about it point to the coal industry as the chief player in that turn of events. I would also point to the recent repeal of Ohio’s energy efficiency standard – which, up until that point had been extremely successful – as another example, thanks to an aggressive campaign by the Koch Brothers and others.

So what I really wanted to try to say about what David Roberts wrote is that is that there’s a big lesson in it for folks in the Appalachian coalfields. As helpful as it would be if national groups made the Appalachian transition a key part of their program, no one  can count on that happening. West Virginians, and Kentuckians, and other coalfield residents are going to have to take the lead.