A just transition to a world beyond coal


By Sharon St Joan


On Thursday, May 19, the Department of the Interior will hold a public hearing in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the Salt Palace, from 10 am to 4 pm – on the future of coal on public lands. This follows an announcement by the Obama administration in January, 2016, placing a moratorium on new coal extraction on public lands. The moratorium will be up in three years, and these federal hearings, being held in six cities, will help determine coal’s future. Forty percent of U.S. coal is mined on BLM land.


Coal is a dying industry, as is every other fossil fuel sector. Always a finite resource, fossil fuels are now fast nearing their end. We have only to look at the recent demise of the nation’s largest coal companies. Alpha Natural Resources filed for bankruptcy in August of 2015, and Arch Coal followed in January of this year. Just last month, in April, the largest U.S. coal company, Peabody, filed for bankruptcy.


According to a 2015 Blumberg news story, “The combined market value of U.S. coal company shares shrank to about $12 billion in late July (July of 2015) from $78 billion in 2011.” This is a decline of 83% in four years.


Continuing to rely on coal is not going to work. It is a mirage, shimmering in the distance, soon to vanish — for investors, for consumers, for coal workers, for our economy, and for all Americans.


This means that it is time for us as a society to undertake a full transition to clean energy. If we wait to do this or postpone the process, we will be risking nothing less than economic and social calamity.


All of us bear a responsibility for the use of fossil fuels. We drive our cars. We heat and cool our houses. We fly in airplanes. And we elect the leaders responsible for our current energy policies.


In other words, our energy policies are not the fault of coal miners, and plans for a clean energy future must include a just transition for coal workers.


By cutting out subsidies to the fossil fuel industry – estimated at $20 billion a year – we can invest instead in a just transition on two fronts.


We need to re-train coal and other fossil fuel workers, create new, cleaner, healthier, good-paying jobs, and assist them and their families in this transition.


And now is the right time to invest in clean, sustainable energy. This means putting our full intention behind creating programs that incentivize clean energy – that bring down the costs of solar energy and reduce toxicity in solar components, as well as planning solar plants so that they are placed on land already occupied by human activity, not on wild lands. It means re-designing wind mills so that they do not harm birds. Forty geo-thermal plants are already operating in California, and many more can be built all over the country.


As we also tackle much-needed rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure of decaying bridges, roads, and substandard airports — while stopping the hidden subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuel giants — and find safe, clean ways to move forward – these steps will create the conditions for an economic upswing.


On the other hand, if we procrastinate, blindly continuing down the road towards this deadend that is the coal industry, we risk upheaval in our economy, hardship for coal workers, and grave trouble for all of us – as coal finally shudders to a permanent halt.


Right now, as the earth runs out of fossil fuels, dying industries employ desperate measures to eke out some profitability – leveling hundreds of once-beautiful mountains and placing at risk all the unspoiled lands of the earth.


If coal is dying anyway, why not just let it grind its way onwards towards its inevitable end?


Two reasons – first, we need to transition now to clean energy to be ready for the future.


Secondly, nothing will be gained and everything will be lost by allowing coal, in its dying years, to continue to pollute our air and water, contaminate our rivers and steams, poison our wildlife, destroy trees and sensitive plants, and ruin our weather patterns – leaving a desolate wasteland behind them as coal companies fall into bankruptcy, dragging our health and our economy into the ground along with them.


Coal needs to stop, starting with permanently banning all new coal on American public lands.


A fundamental change is going to happen one way or another. Either precipitously – or, if we plan well, and begin now, in a way that is life-giving and life-sustaining.


Planning for this just transition can invigorate our economy, providing new hope, new jobs — and the possibility of a brighter future.


A just transition – benefitting workers, renewing our infrastructure, and re-aligning our economy to face inevitable change will – perhaps most importantly — go a long way towards saving the natural world – the trees, the rivers, the mountains, wild species, and our planet.


There are no guarantees. This will not solve every problem we face in a complicated world, and no one knows what the future holds.


But it will be a good step we can take towards protecting the earth we live on and laying the foundation for a kinder, more aware, more prosperous era for our children and grandchildren.


Photo: Valerius Tygart / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / The Monongahela National Forest; photo taken from slopes of Back Allegheny Mountain looking east


What you can do

Written comments will be accepted until July 23. To send a comment on the future of coal on public lands to the Department of the Interior,

Email: BLM_WO_Coal_Program_PEIS_Comments@blm.gov


For more information on the BLM website, click here.


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