Bring Back Van Jones! Blindsiding Clean Energy With Dirty Coal

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CommonDreams.org

Bring Back Van Jones! Blindsiding Clean Energy With Dirty Coal

I miss Van Jones. A lot of us miss President Obama's former green jobs visionary.

That includes coal miners, and residents on Coal River Mountain.

If President Obama's brilliant green jobs administrator hadn't been hounded out of office in a bizarre witch hunt last fall, we would be engaged in an exciting discussion about pursuing a just transition to a clean energy economy at ground zero in our nation's energy policy and climate debate--the coalfields.

While clean energy jobs are a hot topic in the President's vision--and State of the Union--Van Jones was one of a few administrators in Washington, DC, who also envisioned a fair share of green jobs for the Big Coal-strangled coalfields in Appalachia, the Midwest and the West, not just the rest of the country.

Last week, the President spoke about the need for a transition in West Virginia's coalfields--by calling for more coal and the new bridge to nowhere in the guise of carbon capture and storage. He declared:

"For example, nobody's been a bigger promoter of clean coal technology than I am. In testament to that, I ended up being in a whole bunch of advertisements that you guys saw all the time about investing in ways for us to burn coal more cleanly."

And then the President offered:

"What I want to do is with West Virginia to figure out how we can seize that future. But to do that, that means there's going to have to be some transition. We can't operate the coal industry in the United States as if we're still in the 1920s or the 1930s or the 1950s. We've got to be thinking, what does that industry look like in the next hundred years?"

Next hundred years? Even West Virginia Congressman and Big Coal peddler Nick Rahall has openly discussed the issue of Appalachia facing a "peak coal" crisis within 20 years.

In the President's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the entire state of Kentucky, for example, only received $4.7 million in green job funds and initiatives--while billions of dollars continue to be poured into the Big Coal black hole to cover external health care and environmental costs, including defaulted black lung payments.

A study released by the National Academy of Scientists in October found that the "hidden costs" of coal amount to more than $62 billion in "external damages" to our health and lives. According to a West Virginia University report this year, the coal industry "costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits." A recent Mountain Association of Community Economic Development study concluded that coal is responsible for $528 million in state revenues and $643 million in state expenditures in Kentucky alone.

While Kentucky ranks 46-47th in per capita income, coal mining hubs like Clay, Harlan and Martin County rank as some of the poorest counties in the nation.

Thanks to mountaintop removal mining and greater mechanization, employment in these coalfield areas has dropped by nearly 50 percent in the last generation.

A year ago at the Powershift clean energy conference in Washington, DC, Jones declared: "This movement also has to include the coal miners." He added. "We could have clean coal, and we could have unicorns pull our cars for us."

While our President continues to carry Jones' clean energy banner, he still glibly clings to "clean coal" slogans, a motto introduced by Chicago coal pusher Francis Peabody in the 1890s, and used over the past century whenever the coal industry faces an image problem and seeks to derail any diversification in our coalfield economies.

In 2008, Jones noted:

"I think it's important that we be respectful of all the contributions that have been made by all workers. Even our coal workers are heros in a way... in that they've been asked to sacrifice their lungs, their health, their communities. We're now asking our coal miners to blow up their grandmother's mountains! Awful... Mountain top removal and strip-mining... Those coal miners don't set the energy policy in this country but they have to make the sacrifices to carry it out. I think that sometimes we aren't respectful enough, that we're not as encouraging and honoring of the people who have gotten America to this point."

Van Jones understood, like the majority of coalfield residents not on the payroll of a coal company, that mountaintop removal mining--and strip mining, in general--have blindsided any progress for sustainable economic development and clean energy jobs in Appalachia, and other coal mining regions.

Just ask residents fending off mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley today.

As blasting continues daily at the Bee Tree Branch area of the massive 6,600-acre mountaintop removal mine on historic Coal River Mountain today, our nation's most exciting clean energy initiative and green jobs breakthrough for the coalfields is being destroyed. Coal River Mountain is being blown to bits, and with it, any sustainable economic future for the area. Unlike the limited 14-year supply of coal on the site, the Coal River Wind project would have provided long-term energy for 70,000-150,000 households, an estimated 200 jobs and $1.7 million in annual county taxes.

Says Eric Mathis of the JOBS project in Mingo County, West Virginia:

"Sustainable economic development not only needs to start in the coalfields but has to start in the coalfields if only for the fact that America has a long standing commitment to operating within the boundaries of democracy. Boundaries which seek to limit the monopolization of markets and more importantly peoples choice. For this reason America owes coalfield residents a choice to decide their own fate. Sustainable economic development provides a viable choice that shatters the 150 year legacy of a monopolized workforce. As our great county transitions to a carbon neutral economy we owe coalfield residents our greatest and sincere respect for building our country and bringing us through two world wars. For this reason, the JOBS project intends to show respect to these communities by providing a choice for what type of development they want to see."

Van Jones would be standing at Coal River Mountain today, as part of Clean Energy Week. He would have made sure that the coalfields--in Appalachia, the heartland and the West--were included in the clean energy future.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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