I recently drove across the West, mostly on two-lane roads and through towns where campaign signs aren’t about a candidate but a mineral. “Coal Keeps The Lights On,” says a sign repeated throughout northwestern Colorado. That same idea is found at the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana or in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Coal is not on the ballot, but many in the rural West want it to be. And some, especially Republicans, are eager to oblige, claiming that it’s an Obama-led war on coal that’s destroying jobs and forcing coal companies into bankruptcy.
If there was ever a need for a new narrative, it’s coal.
Here are three previous ones.
The first story is a bit boring but important: Natural gas replaced coal as a source of electricity in the United States. It was a dramatic shift, a near market collapse for coal. The industry had a desperate plan to stay in business by increasing shipments to China, but China’s consumption of coal was decreasing too. Folks in port cities in the Northwest and California oppose the by-product of dirty coal dust. Tribes in Washington state cite treaty fishing rights (salmon need clean water) to prevent construction of a new coal shipping terminal.
The second story is the industry’s chaos: Corporate bankruptcy. Rural job losses. An industry that is present in zombie form, still mining and shipping coal across the West to generating stations or to ports in British Columbia. People are still working, but it’s the living dead. There is no future for coal.
The third story is the climate imperative: There should be agreement that the world needs to quickly move beyond coal, if not most carbon. New data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines nearly 90 percent of the world’s coal as “unburnable.”
So how do we incorporate these three stories into a new narrative? The answer is telling all three at the same time. As long as the story is only about the climate, there are hundreds of families across the West who will dismiss any story that leaves their paychecks and prospects on the line.
Stephen Kass, a New York attorney who works on climate issues, suggested in the Washington Post recently that the U.S. government should buy the entire coal industry and shut it down. He said climate “savings” could help pay the cost of condemning coal power plants.
We could do more than that. We could also buy coal that is still in the ground. Buy low. Sell never. This is the perfect time to buy the entire coal industry because prices are so low.
It’s essential to include American Indian tribes in a coal buyout.
It’s essential to include American Indian tribes in a coal buyout. Some 30 tribes have about one-third of the West’s coal on lands from Alaska to Arizona. Montana’s Crow Nation has a reserve of at least 9 billion tons of coal. Darrin Old Coyote, the tribe’s chairman, has said that coal is a critical path toward self-sufficiency and ending poverty. Coal represents some of the best jobs—union jobs—in places as diverse as Crow country, Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana, and in Arizona's Kayenta region of the Navajo Nation.
Imagine what could be done if the coal were purchased at market prices—and then left alone?
There is precedent for paying to take coal out of production. In order for agricultural land to recover, farmers and ranchers are paid to not farm and ranch through several programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program. This would be the same, an investment in the climate.
Reducing greenhouse gases requires creative thinking about energy. It also means we have to pay attention to the story and make sure it’s one that is shared by all. So many of the changes ahead are difficult political tests. We need coalitions as much as causes. So the story must include a future for families in rural communities, for tribes, and for the environment.
This is how we leave coal in the ground.