Getting coal country on board with the Green New Deal

Workers install solar panels at East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s 60-acre solar farm near Winchester, Kentucky. The farm will feature 32,300 panels capable of producing 8.5 megawatts of electricity. Photo: East Kentucky Power Cooperative

The Sunrise Movement’s Road to a Green New Deal tour stopped today in D.C. (you can read more coverage above) yet last Saturday their event in Frankfort, KY may have been one of the most important stops as it was a litmus test for how progressives might garner support for the GND in coal country. The event in Kentucky focused on green jobs as a means to a just transition away from coal yet some former coal miners say that the message must be broader to ease concerns of miners being put out of work. Scott Shoupe, who spent 22 years working as an underground coal miner in eastern Kentucky, warned that a major challenge in getting residents of coal country on-board will be persuading miners to sacrifice their high earning potential–traditionally miners have been able to begin a career in mining straight out of high school and make $60-70,000 per year. Even though coal jobs are on the decline, miners are still holding out that President Trump can bring back mining jobs and the Green New Deal will have to have carefully crafted policy specifics that offer mining communities a tangible alternative that’s harder for naysayers to label as “unrealistic.” 

As the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis explained:

  • Two years since Donald Trump carried every Kentucky coal county by whopping margins after promising miners would go back to work if he became president, the state has fewer coal jobs.
  • Coal employment averaged 6,550 in Kentucky in the first quarter of 2017 when Trump was sworn in, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. The estimated average in the July-through-September quarter this year was 6,381, according to a cabinet report released this week.
  • Of those jobs, 3,851 were in Eastern Kentucky and 2,530 were in the state’s western coalfield. Both regions had fewer jobs than in early 2017.

Despite this, Republicans have full control over Kentucky’s state government (they gained full control for the first time in 95 years in 2016) and messaging a big government initiative won’t be an easy feat–just promising jobs will not be enough.

Tom Sexton, the 33-year-old co-host of the leftist Kentucky podcast Trillbilly Worker’s Party, told Truthout that he expects a Green New Deal to be a bigger political undertaking than its supporters have suggested. “I’m not saying that to be a stick in the mud,” he explained. “I just think we need to know what we’re getting into.” Although Sexton explained that support for ambitious federal initiatives like the New Deal has precedent in his state, joking that “FDR was just a peg or two under Jesus Christ here. You still hear that from people in their 80s who are still very much tied to the Democratic Party of yesterday, including my family.”

In an interview with WKUY, Cassia Heron, vice chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said workers in the coal industry can play a critical role in shaping Kentucky’s clean-energy future. “In eastern Kentucky, miners have been asking and begging and fighting for health benefits because of black lung,” she said. “The visions and promises of a new deal would have protections for workers who are transitioning to an economy that’s focused on renewable energy.”

Why This Matters: The original New Deal wasn’t one policy and effectively the tactic was to try as many policies as possible knowing that some wouldn’t work out but some would. Our current political environment is much more risk-averse but if we’re going to achieve a bold public initiative we’re going to have to take some lessons from the past and communicate to the American people that we’re treading in uncharted territory. That’s the only way to thwart political attacks that seek to brand a robust policy as “failed” should a single component not function as intended. A good example of this earlier in the decade was the Obama energy loan program. Opponents singled-out “Solyndra” as the poster child for government failure, however, just a few years after Solyndra, the loan program ended up being a windfall for taxpayers generating more profits than losses. The lesson here is just because one component of a broader plan isn’t successful doesn’t mean you scrap the entire thing. Communicating that message will take coal country stakeholders, a constituency the Sunrise Movement is actively working to bring to the table. 

To Go Deeper: Watch this video from coal miners responding to AOC and the Green New Deal – it is worthy of your time – it is an eye-opener.

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