The following is a longer version of an op-ed by Delegate Nancy Guthrie (D-Kanawha) that appeared in the Sunday, December 6th edition of the Charleston Gazette - Mail.
The developing discord surrounding the sustainability of coal jobs specifically or the future of coal in a greener economy generally has struck fear in the heart of West Virginia. Working miners and their families are frightened that the future will leave them behind without first creating a better job for them to go to. I share that concern. Environmentalists pit themselves against the coal industry and their workers. While environmentalists chain themselves in trees, angry coal workers turn up at public meetings and rallies as a mob to shout down any threat to their jobs.
The stage is set as the drama of our decade unfolds. My greatest fear is that the drama will prematurely trigger a horrible tragedy or that someone will be killed for which we will collectively share responsibility, remorse and sorrow. In the meantime, people who live in communities impacted by mountain top removal are exhibiting severe and unexplained health problems higher than national averages. As a West Virginian it is hard for me to imagine that any industry or worker means to treat the health and welfare of neighbors as collateral damage to commerce.
Politicians are lining up with coal and working coal mining families against the EPA, Congress and the Administration to speak with one voice. After all coal mining and gambling account for the two largest tax bases propping up our state economy. Besides, many of us owe our political careers to the support we receive from working coal miners and their families, the industry or both and would like to return the favor by cementing a solid future on a viable role for coal.
But what if our five Congressional votes and the votes of members from other coal producing states are not enough to carry the day? What if we win a battle but lose the war? We don’t seem to have an economic reconstruction Plan B unfolding anywhere that gives hope and comfort to our working families who fear for their jobs, much less a Plan B for the long term health of our state economy. If coal isn’t to be the predominant long-term answer to the energy needs of our nation then how should we prepare so that good-paying jobs are plentiful and historically neglected communities finally benefit from the commerce our labor creates?
This is the challenge I brought with me for study at The Harvard Kennedy School of Government where I was recently invited to attend the Executive Education program in Governance. Each of my classmates, who hailed from twenty three foreign countries, twenty federal and state government agencies, two branches of the military, and eight non-profit and for-profit foundations and organizations, brought with them their own challenge. Many of their challenges struck me as more compelling because they were stunningly short-sighted or displayed a history of neglect, abject poverty or war-torn strife.
We spent the week studying, working through the individual challenges of our team mates and learning from one another about the worlds we inhabit. The Danes and the Argentineans think America is crazy although they were quick to remind us that they still love us. Our professors presented thoughtful case studies and funny anecdotes that provided us an academic framework from which to work our challenges. And to my surprise at the end of the week my team chose the West Virginia Challenge to present to the class and our professors for discussion.
Asmau Usman, the new Minister of Education in Nigeria presented us with a perplexing challenge that seemed far more compelling than West Virginia. Her President won election in part on a campaign promise to reform education. After taking office Asmau found that school officials were illegally extorting money from parents and students with the promise to purchase basic supplies like books and chalk but rather pocketed the money for themselves.
As Minister, Asmau put a stop to the illegal extortion practices but her challenge remains. She can’t very well impose a basic supplies school tax on a citizenry already mistrustful of government but in reality there remains a critical need for basic supplies. Additionally, Nigeria needs more schools to reduce overcrowding. One city school has 7,000 students. As her team mates, we suggested that Asmau might best serve her President by requesting assistance through USAID, and through foundations whose primary purpose it is to improve education in African Nations. If she is successful in this venture the critical need for supplies and schools will diminish and public confidence will begin to be restored.
Then there was Colonel Glenn Davis whose Air Force command oversees the servicing of aircraft that need returned to combat. Commanders have a desire to close seven of these bases, citing their desire to lower maintenance costs and reduce the length of time it is taking to return aircraft to duty. Colonel Davis has already successfully demonstrated to his Commanders a system that lowers costs and substantially reduces the length of time an aircraft is down without closing one single base in the USA. His Commanders agree with him and yet still move towards closure. Thousands of U.S. jobs hang in the balance in those states where bases are located. As a team mate, I was able to share our West Virginia base closure experience and we were able to provide Colonel Davis with some helpful tips about the kind of public he may wish to raise and political allies he may wish to enlist to halt the closures and save the jobs that are endangered.
Despite these two equally compelling challenges, my team mates still voted to present the West Virginia challenge to the class for discussion. After we presented, one simple suggestion stood out from our open class discussion. The class suggested we move away from the “us against them” coal discussion which now dominates our state conversation. This is a hard step to take because we are a state that’s always been made to believe we can’t prosper without coal.
Coal has a definite role to play. But in reality we are a state rich in many other abundant natural energy resources whose raw materials can be transformed into good-paying manufacturing jobs that stay in the state and that better fit with the national energy policies now unfolding – from timber to natural gas and silica used in solar panels, biofuels to agriculture and landfill waste, water to wind, electric batteries to electric cars to polymers.
The coal industry, environmental organizations and unions have the financial means and capability to invest in creating these new energy manufacturing plants in addition to those efforts now underway to save a place for coal. If only they would. It was suggested by my classmates that this larger discussion might be a more constructive conversation to begin if we are sincere about saving the jobs we all claim to be worried about losing.
My Danish classmates pointed out that their energy, agriculture and transportation industries already are making these kinds of new investments in energy manufacturing rather than disputing the existence of climate change which now seems settled. Coal companies are setting up plants to manufacture wind mills, solar panels, produce biofuels and harness sea waters. In the process they are saving and creating good jobs rather than putting all of their investments in one basket – namely coal.
They also are making sure they have in place world-class transportation capabilities to store and ship the new products being manufactured. Our own national studies indicate there is great need in America for expanded and improved transportation capacity whether those investments are made with public money, private money or a combination of both. States that recognize and invest in building a world-class transportation network stand ready to lead in the new economy.
There’s nothing wrong with fighting for the future of coal. It’s a fight worth having. But while that battle is being waged it shouldn’t dominate the much larger discussion we need to be having here in West Virginia.
Five votes in Congress only go so far. With or without those votes it is certain that any economy largely dependent upon just two sources of income for stability will always be prey to boom and bust cycles and will never realize the full potential of the prosperity that lies above or below ground. Perhaps as my classmates suggested, it is time to start a new conversation and shift focus in order to win the war this time. That’s what I learned at Harvard.