Column: Debate over saving coal illuminates larger issues

  • FILE - In a June 3, 2014, photo, the Paradise Fossil Plant stands in Drakesboro Ky. The new head of the Tennessee Valley Authority says a decision to shut down the Kentucky coal-fired power plant, which drew a critical tweet from President Trump, was the right one. Jeff Lyash took over as president and CEO of the nation’s largest public utility on Monday, April 8, 2019. In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Lyash said the Paradise Fossil Plant is at the end of its life and was no longer cost effective to operate. (AP Photo/Dylan Lovan, File)

For The Washington Post
Sunday, April 21, 2019


Spats between members of Congress are seldom worth much attention, but an amusing one that happened between Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., tells us a lot about how Democrats and Republicans think about the past, present and future of the American economy, and the best ways to help those who struggle in it.

It began with Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a Green New Deal, which seeks to eliminate carbon emissions and move toward a clean-energy economy. Barr then challenged Ocasio-Cortez to come to his district, and “go underground with me and meet the men and women who do heroic work to power the American economy.”

Barr may have been a bit surprised when Ocasio-Cortez immediately accepted his invitation, because later on he said he would invite her only if she apologized to another GOP member of Congress, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, for her “lack of civility” after she defended Rep. Ilhan Omar against Crenshaw’s utterly bogus criticism of Omar.

What that had to do with coal miners was anyone’s guess. But it turns out there are no active coal mines in Andy Barr’s district anyway, which underscores her point.

So what makes this emblematic of something larger? Barr’s argument against a Green New Deal is that there is something vital — coal jobs — that must be preserved, and would be threatened by such a policy, which is why we must reject it. And if you don’t think so, then you’re some kind of elitist who doesn’t care about real Americans.

But that’s wrong in two ways.

The first is that as Ocasio-Cortez points out, the Green New Deal specifically addresses the need to help people in communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels. It calls for “directing investments” toward “deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.” That may not be all that specific, but the document itself is a set of goals that isn’t intended to be a nuts-and-bolts road map.

The point is, including help for people in districts like Barr’s is something Democrats always talk about when they discuss action on climate change and never get any credit for. You remember how Hillary Clinton got in trouble when she said that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Barely mentioned was the rest of what she said, about how we “don’t want to forget” the people who “labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”

The second reason Barr is wrong is that coal jobs aren’t threatened by the Green New Deal — because they’re almost gone already. There are two main reasons: automation, which means many fewer workers can mine the same amount of coal; and falling prices of natural gas (because of the fracking boom) and clean power, which have made coal less competitive.

According to the latest figures from Kentucky, in the fourth quarter of 2018, 6,569 people in the state were employed in coal mining. There are 2.7 million people between the ages of 18 and 64 in Kentucky, and if 6,569 of them work in coal, that means two-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s labor force works in coal, or just one in every 500 working-age Kentuckians. That’s without any Green New Deal in place, and a president who never met an environmental regulation he didn’t want to shred.

While coal might still have deep symbolic importance in Kentucky and some other places, it’s a tiny employer in the state, and in the country as a whole. There are only 53,000 coal miners left in America. As a point of comparison, as of last year, Sears — a company on its deathbed — had 89,000 employees. Yet politicians aren’t advocating some kind of national mobilization to save Sears, yet alone saying we have to tolerate enormous damage to the environment in order to protect it.

There are a few ways to deal with the reality of the people affected by coal’s decline. You can give them phony promises that if we just cut environmental regulations, all the coal jobs will come back. You can just say their problems are all caused by a bunch of hippies or elitists.

Or you can try to create a modern economy that will offer jobs for people in those communities and give them things like health care and child care that will make their economic lives less harsh. Republicans have chosen the first and second; Democrats have chosen the third.

This parallels what Republicans are selling people on a whole range of issues. When President Donald Trump says he’ll “Make America Great Again,” he’s offering a vision of the clock being rolled back to a time long past, when (among other things) there weren’t so many immigrants around. It’s very enticing for some people, particularly those who aren’t too happy with how things have gone in the last few years. But nostalgia doesn’t put food on your table, or create a future for your children.

Paul Waldman is a Washington Post columnist.