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An Uneven Exchange: Coal Miners Versus Coal Consumers

May 23, 2016

There’s a polarized debate going on in this country about the future of fossil fuels — specifically coal. As a country, we are using less and less coal, but we still burn hundreds of million of tons of it each year for electricity. And so beneath that debate is a real disconnect between the people who produce coal, and those who consume it. The debate and the divide were very much on display recently at a public event in Casper, Wyoming. Inside Energy’s Leigh Paterson reports.

Environmentalists, lawmakers, coal miners, and advocates of all types gathered to have their say at the meeting, hosted by the Department of the Interior.

“This is a politically motivated sham, pandering to the political allies of the secretary and the administration.”

That’s Richard Reavey, an executive at a coal company called Cloud Peak Energy, coming out strong against a review of how coal is mined on federal land. The Department of the Interior is looking at royalty rates, environmental concerns, and coal communities themselves. And holding more meetings like this one across the country this summer.

"My name is Jeremy Murphy. I come here as a 6th generation coal miner."

Murphy moved to Wyoming in 2010 from Kentucky after getting laid off from a few coal mines there. As of the end of March, that region, Central Appalachia, lost around 7,000 coal mining jobs in just one year. And so, Murphy has a challenge for the environmental groups that want to keep coal in the ground.

"Take your cell phones. Dig a hole with the shovel, and put it in the ground. Put it back in the ground because coal made that.”

Murphy explains during lunch that he wants to get people thinking about who makes their electricity.

"I just … I find it amazing that people don’t even do a google search to see what happens when you flip that switch," Murphy says. "Where is it coming from?"

But if you do a search and put that phrase, “Where does my electricity come from” into the website Google Trends, like I’m doing right now, instead of a map of searches by region, you get “not enough search volume to show results.”

Jessica Smith, an anthropologist at the Colorado School of Mines, is writing about this disconnect between coal miners and everyone else. She got into this kind of work:

"Because of my experiences growing up in Gillette, in northeastern WY, in a mining town with a mining family."

Smith’s basic idea is something she calls an energy exchange. For many coal miners their side of the exchange — making energy for others — is a basic part of their identity. When Smith drove a truck at the coal mines during her summer breaks, miners would talk about their work like this:

"This truck holds x many tons of coal, that means it can light this many houses for this many hours."

But on the other side of the exchange, when people living in those homes flip on their lights, there’s little thought given to the miners on the other end.

“You'd still have to dig further, to try to figure out what is it like to live in Gillette, what's it like to work in a coal mine. People have a very distant relationship with the actual sources of their energy,” Smith says.

Smith thinks that for a long time, coal miners with steady, well-paying jobs could just sort of ignore this dynamic. But since 2011, the U.S. has lost over 30,000 of those jobs. That, plus environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan, and high-profile, effective anti-coal campaigns. Smith says it can just seem like a lot.

"When people feel like they're under attack, unfairly or fairly, there is this circling of the wagons. Then things end up polarized."

"We are a keep it in the ground group, that is our M.O." says Jeremy Nichols.

I met Jeremy Nichols at that hearing in Casper. He’s with an environmental group called WildEarth Guardians. They are very much part of the polarized debate, but the group has just unveiled a new billboard campaign with a bit of nod to this divide. The theme?

"Just transition. Which has two meanings for us."

A transition away from coal. And a fair transition for coal miners into new jobs.

“Miners have done amazing work for our country for years. They’ve kept the lights on, to borrow a page from the coal industry playbook. They have. So I think it’s the least we can do to help them,” Nichols says.

But that help? Coal miner Jeremy Murphy is skeptical that job retraining would even work.

“And to be honest with you I don’t want to. I love what I do. I just want to work. I’m a coal miner and that’s what I want to do," says Murphy.

Its a debate still playing out here, at meetings like this, and on the national stage where Hillary Clinton has pledged $30 billion to help coal communities transition, and Donald Trump has promised to put coal miners back to work.

Copyright Inside Energy. Published with permission from RMPBN. Inside Energy is a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues. Originally published at: http://insideenergy.org/2016/05/20/an-uneven-exchange-coal-miners-versus-coal-consumers/