James DeKoven
Writer & Content Strategist

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Opinions, ideas and ramblings

Let’s Save Coal Jobs the Way We Saved Typewriter Factory Jobs

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As I stare at this screen, there’s an historically tragic wildfire raging 60 miles north of me in Sonoma County.

So far: at least 37 deaths, 160,000 acres destroyed, 3,500 structures turned to rubble, 50,000 people now homeless. The elderly, confused and weary, are being shuttled out of their houses to sleep on the cold floors of high school gymnasiums.

Despite the distance, and although I live at the beach and enjoy a constant ocean breeze, the scent of burnt ash fills the air. I stay inside as much as possible.

Nothing is forever, of course. The fire will extinguish, vegetation will grow again, people will mourn the loss of lives and cherished mementos and do their best to move on.

Too bad the same can’t apply to the pollution produced by coal-burning power plants.

Nitrogen Oxide, a major cause of smog, persists for about 114 years.

Carbon Dioxide, the leading cause of global warming, takes 20-200 years to dissolve into the ocean.

Dangerous compounds like chlorine and fluorine can remain in the air for less than a year to thousands of years.

All of these gases don't only cause major health problems, coal ash is a silent killer.

Some adults play a childish game of pretend, believing all is dandy with the environment. Yet we have two choices in life: Go with the facts or cling to unfounded beliefs. Scott Pruitt, who leads the Environmental Protection Agency, has chosen the latter.

Last week Pruitt signed a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which means the Trump administration will eliminate federal limits on carbon emissions at power plants. Pruitt said, “The war on coal is over.”

No one’s attacking West Virginia and Kentucky with missile strikes. Besides, the coal industry continues to get smaller in the rear view mirror.

Today, more people work at amusement parks than at coal mines.

It gets even more absurd, or funny, depending on your perspective: Coal mines employ fewer workers than car washes, museums, and the maker of your favorite roast beef sandwich, Arby’s.

Meanwhile, natural gas has become America’s primary electricity source. Wind and solar prices continue to fall, so much so that in 2015 those sources drove two-thirds of all new electricity capacity in the nation.

That same year, U.S. coal exports sank by 23%, and fell an additional 32% through the first six months of 2016.

Pruitt’s decision also flies in the face of another reality: Corporate America is moving ahead with their own clean energy initiatives. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple are investing more in renewable energy to run their data centers.

In a joint legal brief to support retention of the Clean Power Plan, those four companies said: “Renewable energy is less subject to price volatility than non-renewable energy; provides greater long-term cost certainty to its purchasers; and, in many parts of the United States, is available at prices comparable to or better than the current prices for other electricity options.”

Almost half of Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Walmart, are moving in the same direction with their businesses.

Economists and investors love to talk about growth industries. If past performance indicates future success, where would you place your bet – a government that’s stuck in the past, or companies that always adapt to change?

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Whether you call it global warming or climate change, the debate inevitably turns political. This is another instance of avoiding reality, arguing based on ideological differences instead of having a mature discussion based on facts. Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said it best: "Gases don’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat – left wing, right wing – libertarian, or conservative." 

To believe in the economic longevity of coal – and to ignore its harmful affects on humans, plants, animals, and the planet - is nothing but Iron Age ignorance.

Our ancestors thought crop failures were caused by angry deities, or from spells cast by a vindictive witch in the neighboring village. They didn’t know about proper irrigation, or the damage caused by pests and germs.

Now we know better. We also know better about what does and doesn't damage our health.

If we woke up tomorrow morning and had to build civilization all over again, but could use any current method or technology for our source of energy, what would we choose?

  • Option 1: Install solar panels and wind turbines with absolutely no effect on our health.
  • Option 2: Destroy the land and the sea only to pollute the air and cause disease, and end up with cities looking like Dresden after the liberation.

Even when naysayers accept the science behind climate change, they charge that clean energy will result in the loss of thousand of jobs. But clean energy jobs already outnumbers fossil fuel jobs by more than 2.5 to 1. Solar and wind jobs are growing 17 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy.

The good news, for anyone who genuinely cares about a thriving economy, is that coal companies don’t have to wither away, nor do their employees have to troll Craigslist looking for new careers.

A 2016 report found that “a relatively minor investment in retraining would allow the vast majority of coal workers to switch to clean energy-related positions”, and in the process earn a 10% pay increase.

When challenged with survival, smart industries acknowledge reality and adapt accordingly. In 2011, the world’s last remaining typewriter factory started manufacturing refrigerators. Nintendo began by making plastic playing cards, butswitched business models when they ran out of customers. Now there's a trend of coal companies shifting to renewables.

Scott Pruitt said the Obama administration used the EPA “to pick winners and losers in how we generate electricity in the country. And that’s wrong.”

You know what’s wrong? Making everyone pay with their health for his misguided decisions.