Crony cap­i­tal­ism can’t save coal

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Basav Sen di­rects the Cli­mate Pol­icy Project at the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies. He wrote this for In­sid­

In the ear­li­est days of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, coal baron Robert Mur­ray wrote a check for $300,000 to the new pres­i­dent’s in­au­gu­ral com­mit­tee. It was, es­sen­tially, a bribe.

Af­ter send­ing his lav­ish gift, Mur­ray hand-de­liv­ered a pol­icy agenda to the ad­min­is­tra­tion to dereg­u­late the coal in­dus­try, which the White House has tried hard to im­ple­ment. Call it a quid pro quo.

Pres­i­dent Trump has since claimed that coal is “back.” The data show other­wise.

The United States is pro­duc­ing less coal, burn­ing less coal and em­ploy­ing fewer peo­ple to mine coal than al­most ever be­fore. There are around 30,000 fewer coal jobs than a decade ago, while coal’s share of elec­tric power gen­er­a­tion plum­meted from 48% in 2008 to 27.5% in 2018.

And Mur­ray? He just filed for bank­ruptcy. The death of coal is in­evitable, and no amount of crony cap­i­tal­ism can save it.

There are sim­ply cheaper — and safer — al­ter­na­tives. A new coal­fired fa­cil­ity will gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity at a cost of be­tween $98 and $104 per megawatt hour — com­pared to $46 for nat­u­ral gas, $56 for wind and $60 for so­lar. What’s more, most states have passed leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing util­i­ties to get more power from re­new­ables.

Far from a noble fail­ure, Trump’s failed at­tempt to bring back coal has racked up a ter­ri­ble hu­man cost.

Trump’s own EPA es­ti­mates that his pro­posed re­place­ment of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan — which reg­u­lated green­house gases from power gen­er­a­tion — will kill up to 1,600 ad­di­tional peo­ple a year from in­creased air pol­lu­tion. Then there’s the pro­posed dereg­u­la­tion of coal ash, a known car­cino­gen that con­tam­i­nates air and wa­ter.

Of course, burn­ing coal also gen­er­ates green­house gases — just when the world sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is warn­ing of the need to re­duce th­ese emis­sions rapidly.

The truth is, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s blank checks for the coal in­dus­try are noth­ing short of a dec­la­ra­tion of war against public health — and the fu­ture of the planet — all to ben­e­fit a few coal oli­garchs.

Trump claims his agenda ben­e­fits coal work­ers, whom he loves to use as props. But their in­fla­tion-ad­justed wages have ac­tu­ally de­creased over Trump’s term in of­fice. Mean­while, black lung — a de­bil­i­tat­ing and fa­tal ill­ness — is on the rise. The fed­eral Black Lung Dis­abil­ity Trust Fund, paid for by a coal ex­cise tax, pro­vides dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits to min­ers who don’t get them from em­ploy­ers (who rou­tinely refuse to pay dis­abil­ity). But the fund faces short­falls, and last year Congress made it worse by cut­ting the ex­cise tax rate in half in re­sponse to coal com­pany pres­sure.

Coal coun­try is suf­fer­ing. When min­ers are sick, strug­gling or un­em­ployed, their re­duced spend­ing hurts lo­cal busi­nesses. When lo­cal tax rev­enues fall, the jobs of school­teach­ers and other public ser­vants are threat­ened.

Res­ur­rect­ing coal is the wrong way to ad­dress this suf­fer­ing. It ex­ac­er­bates pol­lu­tion and lit­er­ally kills peo­ple. And it’s doomed to fail, leav­ing coal coun­try with noth­ing but a bro­ken land­scape, a public health cri­sis and poverty.

What coal coun­try needs is a just tran­si­tion from a cor­po­rate-con­trolled ex­trac­tive econ­omy to a com­mu­nity-con­trolled re­gen­er­a­tive econ­omy, some­thing or­ga­ni­za­tions on the ground are al­ready work­ing on.

An in­spir­ing ex­am­ple is an ini­tia­tive by Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth, a grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion in Ken­tucky, to retro­fit homes for en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, sav­ing peo­ple money while cre­at­ing jobs — lots of jobs. En­ergy ef­fi­ciency jobs na­tion­wide out­num­ber fos­sil fuel jobs by two to one, and are grow­ing be­tween six and seven times faster.

An­other promis­ing job cre­ator is en­vi­ron­men­tal restora­tion.

Much of Ap­palachia, for ex­am­ple, has been scarred by moun­tain­top re­moval, a de­struc­tive coal min­ing method linked to car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, birth de­fects and can­cer, not to men­tion pol­luted rivers and head­less moun­tains. Many good jobs could be cre­ated to re­store th­ese land­scapes un­der a Green New Deal.

It’s time to re­ject the false, harm­ful prom­ise of “bring­ing back coal.” There’s so much im­por­tant work to be done restor­ing rivers, forests and com­mu­ni­ties to health and vi­tal­ity. That’s the work that de­serves fed­eral sup­port — not old coal barons try­ing to make their last buck. One way or an­other, the coal in­dus­try will aban­don coal coun­try even­tu­ally. The ques­tion is what’s left be­hind. With a lit­tle plan­ning now, we can re­place it with a com­mu­nity-driven, bot­tom-up Green New Deal — with jus­tice at its core.

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