Heated Words, No Middle Ground in Hearing on Federal Coal Policy

Members of the public had three minutes to comment on the Department of the Interior's review of the federal coal program.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Members of the public received three minutes each to comment on the Department of the Interior’s review of the federal coal program.

Environmentalists, lawmakers, coal miners, and advocates of all types gathered to have their say at a public meeting last month in Casper, Wyo., hosted by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Like most discussions of the future of coal, the debate was passionate and polarized.

“This is a politically motivated sham, pandering to the political allies of the secretary and the administration,” Richard Reavey, an executive at a coal company called Cloud Peak Energy, said in his public remarks.

Richard Reavey, an executive at Cloud Peak Energy, speaks strongly against DOI's review of the federal coal program.

Leigh Paterson/Inside Energy

Richard Reavey, an executive at Cloud Peak Energy, speaks strongly against DOI’s review of the federal coal program.

DOI is reviewing its federal coal program, which administers coal mining on federally-managed surface and subsurface land. The agency is gathering public comment on these issues at similar meetings across the country this summer. Although it may sound bureaucratic, but the issues DOI is reviewing — like royalty rates, environmental concerns, and the impact on coal communities — are highly controversial.

Jeremy Murphy, a sixth generation coal miner, approached the microphone to make his case for coal. 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, had lost around 7,000 coal mining jobs in just one year. So Murphy had 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 yelled.

Later, he explained to me that he not only wanted to make the point that fossil fuels are used to produce and power a lot of our stuff, but he also hopes to get people thinking about who makes their electricity.

“My wife has family in Denver so we go down there and prior to meeting me, they didn’t know where their electricity came from either. I just … I find it amazing that people don’t even do a Google search to see what happens when you flip that switch. Where is it coming from?” Murphy mused.

There are ways to find out where your electricity comes from and of course, some people do. You can check with your utility company or the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But Murphy is right. “Where does my electricity come from” is not a popular Google search.

If you type that phrase into Google Trends, instead of a map of searches by region, you get “Not enough search volume to show results.” The top searches related to the word electricity? ‘What is electricity’, ‘static electricity’, and ‘electricity cost’.

People just aren’t that interested.

Jessica Smith is an anthropologist at the Colorado School of Mines.

Leigh Paterson/Inside Energy

Jessica Smith is an anthropologist at the Colorado School of Mines.

Jessica Smith, an anthropologist at the Colorado School of Mines, is writing about this disconnect between coal miners and everyone else. She is interested in how communities and industries interact because she grew up in Gillette, Wyo. and comes from 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 in terms of how many tons of coal a haul truck can hold, how many houses that coal could light, and for how long.

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 get your electricity bill from your utility and it is very difficult to determine where that electricity originated from. And even if you were to figure out that my power plant buys coal from Gillette, Wyoming, you’d still have to dig 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 said.

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 can make coal miners feel like they’re under attack, fairly or unfairly, Smith explained.

“There is this circling of the wagons. Then things end up polarized,” Smith said.

I met Jeremy Nichols at the hearing in Casper. He’s with an environmental group called WildEarth Guardians that Nichols describes as a “keep it in the ground group.” WildEarth Guardians are very much part of the polarized debate, but they have just unveiled a new billboard campaign with a bit of nod to this divide.

“Just transition. Which has two meanings for us,” Nichols said.

“Just transition” refers to a transition away from coal and also to 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 said. But he acknowledges that the American public may not be aware of this need, and coal miners just might not want to hear it.

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

“I’ve been mining coal since I graduated high school, literally! I graduated on Friday and started Monday. And that’s all I’ve ever done. So how are you gonna retrain me? Who is gonna pay my mortgage while I’m going to school? You can’t do it! And to be honest with you, I don’t want to.  I’m a coal miner and that’s what I want to do.”

This debate is playing out at meetings like this one, and also on the national stage. Hillary Clinton has pledged $30 billion to help coal communities transition, and Donald Trump has promised to put coal miners back to work.

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