No One Left Behind in Coal Country

EPA's rule to limit carbon emissions from coal plants has triggered a new round of allegations that the Obama Administration is waging a war on coal. It is a ridiculous claim, of course -- a transparent effort by the industry, conservatives and coal-state congressmen to divert us from the fact that they are waging a war on the atmosphere and, as a result, on the security and safety of the American people.

But there is no denying that the coal plant rule, along with the nation's larger transition to a clean energy economy, will mean disruption for people and regions whose economies depend on the production of fossil fuels. Apart from any rule that EPA may write to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the international community is waking up to the fact that most of the world's fossil energy reserves must remain in the ground. There is no light at the end of the coal tunnel.

For the families whose economic security is tied to coal and oil, that realization must feel as though someone is trying to take away their jobs and confiscate their homes. It is not only deeply threatening; it seems profoundly unfair to the wildcatters and rig operators and coal miners who have fueled the nation's prosperity for the last 200 years.

When we speak about environmental justice, the term usually refers to the people of the world who are being hit hardest by climate change, but who are least responsible for it and least able to cope. They are the people of poor nations who bear no responsibility for the carbon in the atmosphere today, but who are suffering the heaviest consequences of global warming. We in the industrial world are enjoying the comforts and conveniences of fossil fuels while billions in the world are suffering the damages.

Similarly, there are issues of economic justice that seem as threatening to coal families as flooding is in Bangladesh or famine is to families in Sudan. It is not the fault of generations of soft-rock miners that the coal they provided turns out to be damaging us in ways we are just beginning to see. Yet they will suffer some of the greatest economic impact as the nation's coal use declines.

While it is ridiculous to accuse President Obama of warring against coal, it is fair to ask what his climate action plan can do to ensure that America's transition to clean energy is compassionate and just.

The plan President Obama announced a year ago contains several directives designed to help communities hit hardest by the physical impacts of climate change. In a sentence in the middle of Page 13, he directs that "through annual federal agency Environmental Justice Progress Reports, the Administration will continue to identify innovative ways to help our most vulnerable communities prepare for and recover from the impacts of climate change." On Page 14 he directs that "federal agencies will report on the impacts of climate change on other key sectors and strategies to address them, with priority efforts focusing on health, transportation, food supplies, oceans, and coastal communities".

However, there is nothing explicit in the plan to mitigate or adapt to the economic disruption the clean energy transition will cause for coal- and oil-country families. We know that economic disruptions are part of progress. They are the collateral damage of every evolutionary step in technology or the economy. Everyone from the makers of typewriters to dial telephones has gone through it. But the clean energy transition is different. Fossil energy is so pervasive an influence in our lives that the switch to clean power will be a bigger challenge to more people than any energy transition in the past. There will be good new jobs. Improvements in energy efficiency will put new money in the pocket of every consumer. But before the economy stands solidly on the foundation of clean energy, there will be birth pains.

What should the Obama administration do to ensure that the transition in coal country is as fair as possible?

First, it should focus current federal job training and economic development programs on high-impact transition areas in the United States. The goal should be to help those families, communities and regions diversify their economies. From HUD's housing programs to the President's new Progress Zone program, communities in coal country should be given extra points in grant competitions and extra consideration in the Administration's technical assistance programs, for example. This would require no new spending, only greater focus.

Second, the White House should launch a transition program in at least one region of the United States to demonstrate the role clean energy industries can play in restoring or sustaining a region's economic vitality.

Where should that demonstration be? There is no more challenging and highly symbolic place for a proof-of-concept project than Appalachia. No region of the United States has proven as difficult a place to break the cycle of poverty. No region has more coal production in its history or coal culture in its marrow. No region is more inclined to regard coal as indispensable to its quality of life. And I can think of no other region where an industry so imbedded in the culture is so involved in destroying a region's natural and cultural heritage.

But Appalachia is a region rich in human capital. Many of its communities and dedicated civic organizations have been working hard to prepare for life after coal by diversifying the region's economy with an emphasis on clean energy. The Obama team can build on, and in some cases revitalize, several initiatives it launched early its first term.

In 2009, for example, three agencies -- the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- signed an agreement to work on the controversial issue of mountain top removal, the coal industry's practice of accessing coal more cheaply by blowing up mountains, destroying streams and turning biological habitat into moonscapes. Imbedded in that agreement is a commitment to "help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy" and to "focus clean energy investments and create green jobs in Appalachia."

In the fall of 2009, the White House, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the congressionally created Appalachian Regional Commission created the Appalachian Regional Development Initiative to coordinate federal programs in the region.

The White House also created a working group with representatives of USDA, the Small Business Administration, EPA, and the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, HUD, Interior, Labor and Transportation to develop an interagency action plan for Appalachia.

At about the same time, the White House committed five federal agencies involved in its Economy, Energy and Environment Initiative (E3) to create 15 economic diversification pilot projects in Appalachia. It also launched an "Appalachian Economic Development Initiative" in which HUD, the Treasury Department and USDA combined forces to increase the availability of development capital in the region's 13 states.

In 2010, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and academic institutions in Central Appalachia launched the Central Appalachia Prosperity Project and produced a body of critical information about diversifying the region's economy with clean energy technologies. It identified existing research, knowledge gaps, opportunities and barriers, key organizations working on sustainable development, a list of consensus principles for the region's development and 35 specific proposals to move its economic transition forward.

"Appalachia can become a test bed for best practice and policies as the United States builds a clean energy economy," the project's leaders wrote in their final report. "If Central Appalachia can make the transformation to a clean energy economy, overcoming longstanding poverty, persistent barriers and stubborn opposition from the coal industry, it will prove that economic transformation is possible anywhere in the United States."

The project identified a truly impressive number of talented organizations committed to creating a diverse, sustainable, clean economy for Appalachia -- organizations ranging from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the
Mountain Association for Community Economic Development to Christians for the Mountains and Appalachian Voices.

For a region so economically poor, Appalachia is rich in citizens, organizations and genuine heroes working for a future that one of America's most powerful energy industries actively and vociferously resists with all its political power. It also is a place where the Obama Administration could demonstrate that in its vision for a clean energy economy, no one will be left behind.