Regular readers know that we often make the case that politicians need to come up with a plan for building a new economy in coal-producing communities.
Those who advocate an end to fossil fuels need to do so on moral grounds. But even those who support fossil fuels need to do so because their advocacy is a rhetorical opiate — coal is going down, if not completely away, anyway.
Inconvenient fact: More coal-fired plants have closed under the coal-friendly President Trump than in Barack Obama’s first term. That’s because the so-called “war on coal” is now being waged by the free market, as the price of renewables make coal uncompetitive. Note to politicians, starting with U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem: Can you drop the phrase ‘War On Coal’? It misleads people in the coal counties into thinking they’re passive victims of some conspiracy, when they really need to start figuring out how to build a new economy because, guess what, national politicians aren’t going to do it for them, no matter how much we think they should.
Trump has shown zero interest in building a post-coal economy anywhere, least of all in the coalfields (or, as one speaker at a conference sponsored by the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce called them earlier this year, “the former coalfields”). Neither have the Democratic candidates for president. Politically, we understand this all too clearly: Republicans know they’ll run up the score in coal communities anyway, and Democrats know they don’t need those votes to win. The only way those communities will get more political attention is if they were more politically competitive.
Now, though, one candidate for the highest executive office in the land has, put forward a plan to build a new economy in communities historically dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the land in question is not ours: It’s Canada. It’s not even from someone who realistically will be the next prime minister of Canada following the Oct. 21 election there — it’s from Elizabeth May, the leader of that country’s Green Party.
Still, we’ll take what we can get. Her plan obviously doesn’t affect us, but let’s take a look anyway to see if there’s anything in it that might be applicable in the United States. Lots of political ideas, both good and bad, cross borders. First, some context: Canada’s energy mix is very different from ours — some 67% of its power already comes from renewable sources. By contrast, in the United States, it’s 17%.
Canada’s energy comes mostly from hydropower, at 60%, followed by nuclear at 15%, gas and oil at 10%, coal at 9%, and solar and wind at 7%. In the United States, we are far more dependent on fossil fuels: 35% of our energy comes from natural gas, 27% from coal, 19% from nuclear, 17% from wind and solar, and 1% from petroleum. (None of these numbers add up to 100 due to rounding.)
Those numbers are somewhat misleading, though. The key is not how Canada generates its energy; it’s how Canada exports its energy. Canada may not use a lot of oil and gas but it sure does export it. Oil and gas is that nation’s top export — accounting for 22% of Canadian goods sold abroad. That whole debate the U.S. had over the Keystone pipeline in the Midwest? That’s not for our natural gas; it’s to pump Canadian natural gas to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Oil and gas is so big in Canada that even the otherwise green Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has approved new pipelines to get Canadian oil and gas to foreign markets.
When Canada’s Green Party talks about finding new jobs for fossil fuel workers, it’s concerned about oil and gas workers in Alberta — not coal miners in Appalachia. That’s a big difference: Alberta is generally flat (the Rockies are only along its western border) and is home to two major cities (Calgary and Edmonton). Alberta also has one of the best-educated populations in all of Canada; by contrast, Appalachia has one of the least-educated populations in the entire United States. It’s a lot easier to build a new economy in Alberta than in rural and topographically-challenged Appalachia. Indeed, a study last year by the San Francisco-based Global Startup Ecosystem Report ranked Edmonton alongside Silicon Valley, Seattle and Boston on a list of communities doing the best job of nurturing high-tech economies.
Still, the question remains: What would become of all those oil and gas workers in Alberta (the Texas of Canada) in a green economy? The Green Party has some ideas, something neither Democrats nor Republicans in the United States have for fossil fuel workers here. The main one is to spend a lot of money (it’s unclear how much) on retraining fossil fuels workers for jobs in the renewable sector. Now, that assumes those renewable jobs are available in places where fossil fuel workers are — maybe that’s easier to accomplish in Alberta than in Appalachia. In any case, here’s what catches our eye: “Workers in the energy field are skilled workers, with transferrable skills,” declared Paul Manly, a Green Party member of the Canadian parliament. He cited a survey that showed two-thirds of Canadian energy workers “feel that with a little bit of up-skilling, a week of workshops, that they have the skills to transfer into renewable energy.” That got our attention because it matches almost exactly what Wise County lawyer Frank Kilgore — who would never be mistaken for a member of the Green Party — has been saying for some time now as part of his personal advocacy for Southwest Virginia. In a commentary last year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kilgore wrote: “We . . . have access to millions of dollars in job-creating incentives and a very trainable labor base — some of whom have decades of experience in electronics, mechanics, metal fabrication and operating and troubleshooting computer-driven equipment.” Kilgore’s point: Workers in the coalfields are often stereotyped as unskilled when that’s simply not true.
Manly says his country needs boilermakers, pipefitters and electricians to build wind turbines. Kilgore writes that Southwest Virginia has “a surplus of welders, truckers, diesel specialists and manufacturers.” They seem to be saying pretty much the same thing. Instead of being the victims of an energy transition, the coalfields could be the leaders in that transition. That’s what the Canadian Green Party is saying about fossil fuel workers there. So why aren’t politicians in the United States?