Addressing Global Warming: Retrain Coal Workers for Green Jobs

A perfect storm of factors are massing against continued coal burning, and given the catastrophic consequences of current and future climate change, it's coming none too soon. After more than a century of coal mining, the most accessible supplies of US coal reserves are now gone, so mining further coal will be more difficult and expensive, and many of the top coal-producing states have already passed their peak production, says Leslie Gulstrom of Clean Energy Action. Meanwhile, as medical studies show the costly damage that pollutants from coal burning wreak on human health and thus our economy, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing legislation to regulate such pollutants, including sulfur dioxide. This will mean costly retrofitting of coal plants that will decrease their efficiency and up their fuel usage, ultimately doubling the cost of coal to consumers. And no "clean coal" break-throughs, let along economical ones, appear to be showing up anytime soon. In a further blow, President Obama fiscal 2011 budget includes cutting coal subsidies.

Clean renewable energy will finally have a chance at the energy market!! We shall all join hands, dance in the Elysian Fields, and -- okay, before we start unfurling the rainbow, there's just one little thing: getting the right legislation through a polarized Congress to make the transition real. Coal states, both blue and red, have senators and representatives that can all too easily block or gut any meaningful legislation. And some lawmakers from Kentucky, the state with the fastest growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions, are already vowing to block the cut in coal subsidies.

What to do? Create carrots for coal states -- specifically, green jobs to replace coal jobs. When Congress creates a jobs bill it should include allocations to specifically retrain coal workers for green jobs in the coal states. It is important that this option be explained in public announcements to the voters of all coal states, so they understand what is in it for them and their economy, before fossil fuel interests spin the message. The actual retraining allocation needed is relatively trivial, compared to what is spent on keeping our foreign oil supplies safe, as our online book illustrates. If we assume it takes about two years, at $60,000 per year, to retrain the roughly 100,000 US coal workers, it works out to $12 billion. And the paybacks are huge, economically and politically. Electricity via clean energy could ultimately replace oil in fueling our cars, as well as heat our homes and power our appliances. Addressing climate change and developing new homegrown energy sources by phasing out old foreign ones contribute hugely to our national and economic security. This is a message that Congress needs to hear from their constituents in coal states, to break through the din of fossil fuel lobbyists.

Any coal state congresspeople who do not support funding for job retraining should be identified as obstructionists to their constituents. And coal executives should be protecting their shareholders by developing a plan to transition their companies from coal to clean energy, while they have the revenues to do so. Phasing out coal gradually will allow industrial transformation. Just as President Obama has stated that Congress must rise above partisanship for the good of the country, so, too, must industries recognize that they have similar obligations -- and ultimately, it is in their economic interests to do so.

Even if we could pass all the health care reform bills we want, if we don't stop the large flow of health care needs stemming from the damaging pollution of burning coal, health care costs will continue to increase, and harm our economy.