Coal is no longer king. Leaders need to prepare for the transition.

Coal is no longer king.

The writing’s on the wall for the dying industry, not to mention in blog posts and news stories from Yale Business 360 to CNN Business. And as long as we’re using clichés, here are a couple more:  

The canary in the coal mine is gasping for breath while conservative governments and politicians join other dirty energy industry cheerleaders in sticking their heads in the sand. 

There are lots of reasons for coal’s demise, such as cleaner, more cost-competitive and renewable energy sources; a glut of natural gas from fracking, which feeds natural gas power generation; and the public’s growing demand for energy that does not contribute to global warming or harm their health. 

Whatever the reason, the reality is the same. To paraphrase many bloggers, journalists and Shakespearean tragedy characters:

“King Coal is dead. Long live The King.”

Let’s make sure people whose coal jobs disappear are able to transition into new jobs and ways of life that aren’t just good for them and their families,
but for all of us.

Framing the Future

L. Michael Buchsbaum, a veteran energy and mining journalist, frames the situation well:

“As the King dies, two questions remain: what will take its place? And who will clean up the industry’s mess?” 

Unfortunately, the government entities, politicians and fossil fuel cheerleaders aren’t coming up for air any time soon, let alone taking actions that will positively position their states for the clean future that’s coming. 

Take North Dakota, where I live, as an example. 

Earlier this year, Great River Energy announced it will be retiring Coal Creek Station, the state’s largest power plant and one of the biggest in the upper Midwest, by the end of 2022. Instead, the company is pursuing its “…plan to significantly reduce its carbon footprint by replacing (the) North Dakota coal plant with renewable energy projects, market purchases and grid-scale battery technology.”

State leaders and legislators, rather than seeing this for what it is – a harbinger of what’s to come for North Dakota’s coal country – and responding accordingly, gnashed their teeth and vowed to find a way to keep the plant open and burning dirty lignite coal from the Falkirk Mine.

That’s a mistake. 

Despite coal adherents’ inclination toward the obtuse, communities, states and the nation as a whole should be preparing for the future.

It’s a future that clearly will include a transition from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to other solutions, including green, renewable and sustainable forms of energy generation like wind and solar. 

Just as importantly, we need to do everything possible to help the workers and communities that will be losing jobs and revenue move with the rest of the world to the cleaner future.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) has a head start on the answers.

Who or What is a WORC?

“WORC is a regional network of grassroots community organizations that include 18,620 members and 41 local chapters. WORC’s network includes:  Dakota Resource Council (North Dakota); Dakota Rural Action (South Dakota); Idaho Organization of Resource Councils; Northern Plains Resource Council (Montana); Powder River Basin Resource Council (Wyoming); Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action; and Western Native Voice. WORC’s mission is to advance the vision of a democratic, sustainable, and just society through community action.”

WORC’s Research & Recommendations

WORC recently released a study based on reviews of surface coal mines in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming titled, “Coal Mine Cleanup Works:  A Look at the Potential Employment Needs for Mine Reclamation in the West.”

The report’s focus is jobs. More specifically, how to keep mine workers employed while helping them transition to a new way of life while saving the communities they live in and ensuring mines are properly reclaimed, as is required by law.

Through its research, WORC found that:

Reclamation jobs provide years of employment for coal miners at the end of mine life. – “As the coal mines slow or stop production altogether, reclamation jobs can be a bridge of employment for numerous workers facing sudden layoffs,” the report states. WORC also estimates that reclamation work for most mines will last at least two to three years.

Mine cleanup can and should be done by the local workforce. – Today’s miners can be tomorrows reclaimers; both require the same heavy equipment and similar skillsets.

Delayed reclamation means fewer jobs for local workers. – WORC’s plan would give workers a reason to remain in their communities. If mine owners and state regulators wait until after a mine closures, it’s less likely that displaced workers will still be in the area to fill the transition jobs. 

Photo by M. Bordakov via Pixabay

Reclamation job creation is dependent on availability of cleanup funding. – If there’s no money, there is no cleanup and there are no local jobs.

WORC’s recommendations for state leaders, legislators and regulators are:

End insufficient and insecure reclamation bonds. – Coal companies are required to post funds for reclamation prior to commencing operations. Unfortunately, some states, like North Dakota allow companies to self-bond, meaning that they could walk away without ever reclaiming the land or paying for its reclamation. Not legally, but they could still do it.

Regulators must ensure that all cleanup liabilities are assumed by new mine owners and that new mine owners are poised to fulfill those obligations.

State regulators need to be ready to seize bonds immediately when a mining company abandons its mines in order to initiate reclamation immediately.

Federal and state authorities should work to accelerate the pace of contemporaneous reclamation at active mines.

Federal, state, and local policymakers should institute policies that facilitate and incentivize local hiring for mine reclamation. 

WORC’s report is well researched, its figures soundly calculated and its recommendations logical, not to mention forward-looking. It can be a valuable roadmap for elected officials and regulators who embrace the reality of energy’s future.

Time to Plan for Life Beyond Coal

Coal is on the way out. 

Rather than ignoring the reality, it’s time for leaders to make sure their states, communities and citizens are prepared for the inevitable. By following WORC’s recommendations now, we can retain their workers, save communities and ensure natural environments are returned to as close to their original condition as possible.

Let’s make sure people whose coal jobs disappear are able to transition into new jobs and ways of life that aren’t just good for them and their families, but for all of us. 

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Black outlined graphic indicating copyright 2020 Martin C. Fredricks IV

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