Sometimes there is nothing so dangerous — or exciting — in politics as the unexpected.
For the 24 Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for president, the unexpected has just happened.
It hasn’t come from any of the usual places that might spring a surprise — a scandal here, an overseas crisis there, or even the latest burst from President Trump’s Twitter account. Instead, it’s come from a group that once was the bedrock of Democratic victories but lately has found itself shunted aside. The union representing coal miners has invited the Democratic candidates to visit a coal mine.
“As America moves toward developing policy decisions to revise the way we generate electricity, their voices need to be heard by those who are guiding that policy,” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts wrote to each candidate. He didn’t use the phrase “Green New Deal,” but he didn’t have to. Whether candidates have endorsed that specific policy or not (which, frankly, isn’t very specific), they’re all in favor in some way of reducing America’s dependence on coal. To put things more bluntly, they’re in favor of putting a lot of coal miners out of work.
This is the part of green energy policy that proponents don’t like to talk much about. An economy powered entirely or even largely by renewables would be best for the planet, but it would hurt one particular part of the planet — all those communities that were built around the coal industry. In this part of Virginia, we tend to think in terms of the coal counties of far Southwest Virginia, but the reality is that the coal industry — even in diminished form — reaches far beyond the coal-mining regions. We don’t think of Roanoke as a railroad town anymore, but the railroad remains a significant employer — and a lot of those jobs are tied to coal trains. Carter Machinery in Salem sells a lot of equipment used in coal mining. Blue Ridge Diesel in Salem sells, services and rehabs machines used in the mines. Not all coal-related jobs are underground.
In the recent round of Democratic debates, some candidates bragged about shutting down coal-fired plants in their previous jobs — Julián Castro, as former mayor of San Antonio, and John Hickenlooper, as former governor of Colorado. But they made no mention of what that means for coal-mining communities. Do they have a responsibility to? (Hint: Our preferred answer is “yes.”) Political bravery would require all those candidates advocating more renewable energy — and thus less coal or even no coal — to come to the coalfields and explain, face to face with the miners they’d put out of work, how they would build a new economy there.
Now, before Republicans chortle too much about how all this puts Democrats on the spot, they should remember this: They have the same responsibility to come up with a post-coal economy, as well.
Democrats might be enthusiastic about killing off coal, but Republicans can’t save it. Two inconvenient facts:
1. As of April, the United States now generates more electricity from renewables than from coal. In 2000, coal produced 52% of the nation’s electricity; last year, it was 27.5%. In April, it was 20%. Renewables produced 23%.
2. More coal-fired plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than in Barack Obama’s entire first term. How can this be? Didn’t Trump come to Southwest Virginia and vow “we’re going to bring back King Coal!” He did. But the “war on coal” is now being waged by the free market. Other forms of energy are now cheaper than coal, no matter how many environmental regulations Trump repeals. The question is not whether coal will decline, only how quickly. Both parties have a moral — yes, moral — responsibility to figure out what to do about those parts of the country whose economy was once built on coal. Instead, Trump has promised something he can’t deliver, and Democrats haven’t promised anything at all. Which is the more hurtful policy — false hope, or complete silence? Both produce the same result: The depopulation of Appalachia.
At the state level in Virginia, it’s been Republicans who represent the coal counties in the General Assembly who have been the most creative — Dels. Terry Kilgore of Scott County, Todd Pillion of Washington County, Will Morefield of Tazewell County, Israel O’Quinn of Washington County, and state Sens. Ben Chafin of Russell County. and Bil Carirco of Grayson County. They’ve set in motion a proposed energy research center that might someday generate high-tech jobs. They’ve enticed Dominion Energy to build a pump storage hydro-electric project that would create construction jobs in the short term. They’ve passed legislation offering tax breaks for new businesses that set up in certain areas. You can argue whether these are the right moves, or whether they are big enough to meet the challenge — but they certainly represent more action than we’ve seen out of any other level of government. For the first time, we see even pro-coal legislators from coal country who understand they need to fashion a new economy for what comes after coal.
It’s unclear what the United Mine Workers want, exactly, other than a dialogue with Democratic candidates. The UMW may want something that isn’t possible: More work for coal miners. We don’t see the union sketching out an action plan for a post-coal economy, either. Still, it’s one thing for pesky editorial writers to challenge the candidates to visit coal country; it’s another when a labor union does so. Roberts told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that at least half the Democratic candidates have expressed some interest in taking him up on his offer. We hope they all do. For what it’s worth, we’re happy to amplify the union’s invite and turn it into a challenge. If any Democratic candidate doesn’t take up this offer, why not?
In sheer political terms, Democrats don’t need coal miners to carry Virginia — they’ve done quite nicely without them. Democrats have no realistic chance of carrying West Virginia or Kentucky or Wyoming (which is actually the biggest coal-mining state). But Democrats would like to figure out a way to win back Ohio and Pennsylvania. If any Democratic candidate does go underground — for the first time since John Kerry in 2004 — those two key states are likely where it will be. But all these places need the same thing: A plan for what comes after coal. That’s the real challenge for Democrats — not whether they manage a photo op, but whether they can come up with a realistic policy for a part of the country being left behind by the new economy.
Same for Republicans, too.