For an industry that employs a relatively small number of Americans, coal has received an inordinate level of attention in recent years.
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to overturn environmental regulations that he claimed had devastated the coal industry — making the issue one of his primary campaign platforms. As president, he has followed through, rolling back initiatives such as the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
That has proven to be a 19th-century approach to 21st-century problems. It has ignored the United States’ moral duty to help address climate change; has reduced clean air initiatives that help protect the health of Americans; and has violated the conservative ethos of embracing market solutions.
Meanwhile, the coal industry has continued to decline. As CNBC summarized in October: “Pledges by President Donald Trump to save the U.S. coal industry and boost so-called clean coal technology are proving to be no match for the free market.”
With natural gas and renewable sources supplanting coal as cleaner and less-expensive energy sources, coal-fired plants are closing. In the past five years, coal production has dropped by about one-third, and the industry employs about 50,000 workers. A year ago, according to Forbes, renewable energy industries employed more than 3 million Americans, outnumbering all fossil fuel industries by a ratio of 3-to-1.
All of which means it is time to end the discussion and focus on action. As detailed in a recent article from Stateline.org, an initiative of Pew Charitable Trusts, the case of the TransAlta coal-fired plant in Centralia serves as a microcosm of issues facing communities throughout the country.
Fueled by the state’s desire to move toward clean energy, an agreement was reached in 2011 to shutter the Centralia plant by 2025. As Stateline reported: “Unlike many coal plant closures today, it was forged not because the company was going out of business but as a political deal to address climate change.”
State officials initially wanted to close the plant by 2015. After having the deadline pushed back by a decade, TransAlta agreed to invest $25 million into energy technology projects, $20 million into economic and community development, and $10 million for weatherization work to improve energy efficiency. The community development money includes $8 million for payouts to displaced workers, and another $1 million set aside to pay for education and retraining opportunities.
That approach should be embraced by states throughout the country. The decline of the coal industry hurts communities where power plants are closing and areas where coal mining is essential to the economy. Wyoming, for example, produces about 40 percent of the nation’s coal, but production in that state has declined 30 percent over the past five years.
Retraining workers for the wind and solar industries is essential. So is investment in renewable energy. So is an economic boost for regions impacted by the industry’s decline. According to Stateline, TransAlta has spent more than $1 million in small solar projects at colleges, schools, city government buildings and hospitals in and near Centralia. It has put another $3 million into vocational training at the local high school and community college.
That does not make for a painless transition; many people will be out of work, and the local tax base will be impacted. But it does reflect the reality of modern economics — more so than trying to prop up a dying industry.