By Robert Weiner and Kimberly Bartenfelder
With the next Democratic debate coming fast on September 12, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are making the same fatal mistake that Hillary Clinton made in 2016 on West Virginia coal.
During both nights of the latest Democratic debates, there was a wave of support for the Green New Deal. That left many candidates falling short on dealing with coal jobs. Kamala Harris stated, "We must have and adopt a Green New Deal" without offering further solutions. Even Joe Biden, steeped in a lifetime of labor and working families' values, said, "We will end any subsidies for coal or any other fossil fuels."
Others likewise dumped on the coal industry without citing plans to employ people with alternative jobs. Climate-change leader Jay Inslee, now out but with a high reputation from his presidential campaign built off the issue with the most comprehensive climate plan including renewables, was among the lowest-polling candidates. His "The house is on fire" description of the planet's pending death didn't help any more than Jimmy Carter blaming "malaise" on the American people. On the other side, "I-have-a-plan" Elizabeth Warren says she "put a real policy on the table to create 1.2 million jobs in green manufacturing." The public wonders how long until any manufacturing plant is built.
In the same breath as saying coal jobs will decline, Democrats must offer coal-replacement jobs, not just push for the Green New Deal, otherwise they risk losing West Virginia again.
In March 2016, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business", costing her West Virginia and angering many. Clinton defended her comment saying it was taken out of context because, "the way things are going now, we will continue losing jobs... I didn't mean to say that we will do it. I meant to say that is what will happen unless we take action to try and prevent it." However, it was too little too late.
Clinton's statement highlighted an economic shift from the culture of coal to renewable energy. Yet it neglected the steep decline of West Virginia miners--120,000 in 1950 to 20,000 in 2017--a loss of five-sixths, similar to trends in other states.
Reacting to Hillary, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said, "It surely wasn't helpful. I don't think she was thinking." However, for Democrats to regain West Virginia votes -- votes that Bill Clinton won in his '92 and '96 presidential races -- they must look at the middle class and find compromise with "green jobs".
In July 2019 the national unemployment rate was 3.7% while West Virginia was 4.8%. However, three West Virginia counties exceeded those numbers with struggling communities at 7.6-9.5%.
Attention to environmental policy and protection has drastically grown. In 2015, Obama and the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan, which details "reducing carbon pollution from power plants... [strengthening] the fast-growing trend toward cleaner and lower-polluting American energy... [and providing] national consistency, accountability and a level playing field"--bold goals but spiraling West Virginia coal further into decline.
The plan invested in a hopeful environmental future, but then Trump was elected promising to "bring coal back." As a firm believer that climate change is a "hoax" and the effects of coal are minor, he's continued to roll back previous policy -- the New York Times counting 83 rollbacks since he took office.
Fifty-three of 55 of the state's counties profit from bituminous coal, the most common U.S. type with a high heating value used in electricity generation. While short-term bursts may occur, a long-term coal resurgence is unlikely. West Virginians know their mining jobs have already been replaced by machinery and explosives, with clean-energy jobs not replacing them quick enough.
In a 2019 Gallup poll, only 22% of Americans said there should be more emphasis on coal -- 70% emphasized wind and 80% emphasized solar.
CBS featured video interview of Eric Ritchie, an O&M manager at Beech Ridge wind farm. He was "born and raised on a coal family." When he transitioned to producing wind energy, he said that he heard all the "treehugger comments" but now his old coal-working buddies are calling him for jobs. "It's a job. It's a future," he said. Trump attempted to discredit wind turbines when he tweeted, "Not only are wind farms disgusting looking, but even worse they are bad for people's health."
Doyle Tenney, owner of DT Solar LLC, was also featured by CBS. He said, "I am not against coal. I am for the future." As Tenney mentions, Power Purchase Agreement's House Bill 3072 allows residents to install solar panels and pay them off over time yet haven't been passed by the state legislature. Industry and legislative resistance set back environmental and economic progress.
Although the decline of coal is sharp in West Virginia, they can still become a leader in greener practices. Democrats can win West Virginia when they help alter the business model to work for the environment with wind and solar energy, not against it; when jobs they urge are permanent, funded, and with a timeline.