There are regions where economic stress coexists with a beloved way of life. It can be hard to make a living in parts of the rural West, northern New England and the South. But people stay put in these places for other reasons: community, tradition and quality of life.
The prospect of losing a way of life is the source of anger in eastern Wyoming over the Trump administration’s opening of more public lands in the Powder River Basin to coal mining. It is also behind the continuing resistance in Nebraska to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
But the issues go beyond the matter of souls vs. fossil fuels. They involve conflicts between one source of income and other sources. Both projects threaten the water supply in places where water is extremely valuable. That, in turn, threatens the farm and ranching economies on which these regions depend.
Ranchers can’t ranch if the water supply is fouled. Mining operations throw dust in the air that chokes the animals. The U.S. Forest Service puts pasture near the mines off-limits to ranchers.
The fight is about more than environmentalism vs. fossil fuels. It’s about money vs. money. And if that’s the case, why would fossil fuel interests win over ranching and farming interests? The answer is that fossil fuels have more money and more of it goes into politicians’ pockets.
Secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke as a Republican representative from Montana took campaign money from several major coal companies and the railroad that transports the coal.
In June, he attended a meeting of Western governors, where he blew a lot of smoke about finding a balance between resource extraction on public lands and protecting them. Right before, he had a cozy one-on-one with a petroleum CEO.
U.S. taxpayers, meanwhile, extend billions of dollars in corporate welfare to the mining companies in the form of below-market rates for the right to mine on public lands. The Obama administration took action to reduce the abuses. Trump reversed it.
So, we subsidize mining companies to sell cheap coal to China, after ravaging land belonging to the American people. The locals are left with gouged-out canyon walls, polluted strip mines and poisoned water. And for what, a few jobs in a rapidly automating industry? No, to enrich a handful of fossil fuel executives.