The decline of coal

November 16th, 2018

"Old King Coal"

Coal has been rumbling out of the West Virginia hills for years. Each spring, when I return to the state for my family reunion, I survey the evidence. First, in Newport News in coastal Virginia are great mountains of the black mineral waiting to be loaded onto barges after being transported by train along a line that stretches down the James River. As I continue into the heart of coal country, I encounter the small, struggling towns of West Virginia that once depended almost exclusively on the coal economy. In the gift shops along the way, I find the work of artisans who have crafted small figurines out of coal — coal mining chic, you might call it. These are tough times in the coal patch. An industry and a way of life are changing, and residents of Appalachia and other coal-producing regions are assessing both the legacy and cost of extracting coal from the earth and its potential for the future. In the meantime, coal lingers in our cultural consciousness. For some, coal mining is the epitome of virtuous work — hardy people wresting a living by busting rocks in the darkened mountain depths.

For others, coal mining means environmental degradation, a history of exploited workers, and communities challenged by the effects of coal’s extraction. What’s the word that coal communities need to hear in this time of transition marked by the decline of coal? How can people of faith provide a witness of hope to those affected by the changes? And what’s the ongoing symbolic significance of “Old King Coal”?

Industry decline

In the summer of 1985, coal was still booming. Federal Reserve economic data shows that over 177,000 workers made their living from the coal mining industry. Despite then-growing concerns over the use of fossil fuels because of their effects on the climate, new coal-powered plants were still being constructed to meet increasing demands for electricity. However, by the summer of 2017, less than 53,000 people were employed in coal mining and Scientific American was openly wondering, “Will the U.S. Ever Build Another Big Coal Plant?” Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change have obviously played a role in the decline of the coal industry. Coal is a notoriously “dirty” fuel, and its extensive use through the Industrial Revolution and beyond has been associated with dense, miasmic fogs, poor air quality and the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. As governments around the world seek agreements to cap the use of carbon-based fuels, new regulations and the increasing availability of cleaner alternative fuels have made coal-powered plants less economically viable. The result? Last year Scientific American reported a 16-percent decline in coal-fired capacity since 2012. Meanwhile, also last year, utility companies were planning to add 11 gigawatts (GW) of natural gas and 8.5 GW of wind power. Even new subsidies for coal plants that incentivize the use of new carbon-capture technology don’t appear to be reversing this trend. Regulatory uncertainty compounds the issue, resulting in only one new coal plant (a relatively small one in Fairbanks, Alaska) moving forward with construction last year.

The “Resource Curse” and the promise of a new day

Beyond climate change, there are other costs to coal extraction. Labor relations in the industry have always been volatile. As miners organized into unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were violent conflicts and many deaths. Additionally, newer methods of extraction, like mountaintop removal, depend on what Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer calls “a kind of landscape vampirism,” exposing communities to risks such as “mudslides, dislodged boulders and flash floods.” Meyer writes that estimates show “in Kentucky alone, almost 4,000 miles of streams have been polluted, damaged or destroyed by mountaintop mining.”

Journalist Eliza Griswold, in her new book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, examined some western Pennsylvania counties that have moved from coal to natural gas extraction marked by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Noting similarities with African communities she had visited, Griswold talks about thev“Resource Curse” in which “some of the poorest people in the world live on some of the most resource-rich land.”

The book goes on to document the potentially deadly effects of the industry, but it also highlights the complex relationships these Appalachian communities have to coal and other resource extraction industries. “In Amity and Prosperity [Pennsylvania], as elsewhere,” Griswold writes, “resource extraction has long fed a sense of marginalization and disgust, both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.”

Others see a new opening for economic opportunity in recent efforts by the Trump administration to promote coal. “Coal mining was our lifeblood,” Tim Ellis told The Atlantic earlier this year. Ellis, who manages GCR Tires near Bessemer, Alabama, said, “The positivity, the optimism that things would get better — it’s just grown, and it’s really helped us financially. It greatly impacts our autonomy.”

Fatalism and hope

While covering the problems related to resource extraction in western Pennsylvania, Eliza Griswold ran into some residents who seemed fatalistic. One woman, upset about how fracking had poisoned her well, said, “God permitted this to happen because [our country] has gotten so far from him. . . . I just hope we’re raptured out of here.”

Other Christians have taken action to combat the worst effects of coal production. In 2007, the West Virginia Council of Churches, which involves more than a dozen denominations, including The United Methodist Church, produced a statement condemning mountaintop removal. Citing Genesis 2:15, the churches said, “Humans have been made stewards of all that God has made.” They affirmed that they were “also called upon to support others in the coalfield communities whose health is being harmed, and whose ancestral homes are being destroyed, disrupted and devalued.”

The United Methodist-related Red Bird Mission works to bring a message of hope to the coal region. Red Bird has been serving the Southern Highlands region of Kentucky since 1921 and has welcomed numerous partners from around the country in an effort to provide home repair, bring economic development, offer health services, and build a sustainable community. Such efforts bring something new into places that are often identified only by what has been lost when the coal industry leaves.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLinkmotivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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