Harrop: Coal-producing states don’t have to die with coal

State and national policies are keeping them in an environmentally and economically destructive rut.

By Froma Harrop / The Washington Post

There is economic life after coal, and the sooner America’s coal country concedes that coal as a power source is about dead, the sooner it can move on to better days. This is the reality of coal. It’s on the way out whether President Trump “digs” it or not.

Major U.S. coal companies are falling one by one. They’ve filed over half a dozen bankruptcies in the past year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Fueling this downturn is the growth of natural gas and renewable energy. Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than coal. What electric utility in its right mind would prefer coal?

Coal workers are suffering. Thousands have lost jobs in recent months. Some are losing retirement benefits, as well as paychecks they’ve already worked for.

America’s two main coal-producing regions are Appalachia and the Powder River Basin spreading through parts of Wyoming and Montana. No one can deny that the drop in demand for their product was totally predicted.

In 2008, coal powered 48 percent of America’s electricity production. By next year, it is expected to account for only 22 percent.

And it’s not only natural gas, a fossil fuel that produces less greenhouse gas than coal but still emits some. Spanking-clean wind and solar energy have become major players in the energy supply, in many cases undercutting coal in price.

Britain had built massive offshore wind farms, and more are on the way. In the third quarter, renewable energy sources produced more of the United Kingdom’s electricity than did fossil fuels. Britain has almost entirely eliminated coal from its electrical grid, thanks in part to nuclear power, which accounts for about 19 percent of its electricity.

Trump got rid of restrictions on coal-fired plants. He let mining companies again dump their toxic wastes into local streams. This was a service to the flailing coal business, which also has a hold on local politicians. It is a disservice to the communities that wish to attract modern businesses that care about their environment.

Wyoming is the biggest coal-producing state. Mighty winds blow over its vast landscape, making it a potential wind power superpower. Unfortunately, the state levies a ludicrous tax on wind-produced electricity, obviously aimed at giving fossil fuels a competitive advantage. The state’s prospects for wind power are such that wind farms are being built there anyway. Imagine the fabulous clean-energy empire Wyoming could become if only the state’s politicians would get out of its way.

Appalachia extends to parts of 12 states and all of West Virginia. It is a generally poor region getting poorer and sicker as healthy, young people leave and as demand for coal plummets.

Trump’s policies, meanwhile, are making life tougher in these struggling areas. For example, his attacks on the Affordable Care Act have caused rural hospitals to close, making health care harder to find in isolated areas and draining away one of the few growing sources of good jobs.

What West Virginia has is a wonderful location. It is just east of bustling Columbus, Ohio, south of renaissance city Pittsburgh and west of the sprawling Washington/northern Virginia metroplex. It retains much natural beauty, and its people are famous for their strong work ethic. Why its economy remains stuck in an environmentally destructive rut is a story that’s been told by others.

We can understand why threats to the coal industry would irk those working in it. Offering alternatives is another matter but one that requires a higher quality of political leadership.

Coal country has to know that there is economic life after coal. But it has to believe in the promises of a different future.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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