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for people who care about the West

Bail out coal communities, not coal executives

The good times are over for the coal industry. It’s time to move on.

 

Gabriel Hunt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is 37, grew up in East Carbon, Utah, and along with his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, worked as a coal miner. These days, he is an aspiring artist and advocate for prosperous Western communities.


I was the fourth generation in my family to work as a miner, and I worked my butt off in Utah’s coal mines. My family and I enjoyed the good times, but I can’t deny that those good times are over. I can also attest that working in the mines has become even riskier. As the industry flailed, companies started cutting corners on safety and environmental protection. Bosses turned a blind eye to unsanitary conditions, did nothing to stop drug abuse and tolerated a dangerous working environment.

Last year, I quit my job at the Skyline Mine west of Price, Utah. For my family, my dignity, my health and my future, I realized it was time to move on. I think the notion that we should tolerate and use taxpayer dollars to attempt to sustain a 19th century industry is a slap in the face to coal miners and communities here in Carbon County and beyond. We no longer need coal. What we do need is real economic prosperity. 

Now, a plan by Utah legislators to waste taxpayer money by suing California on behalf of the coal industry promises to make executives even richer while miners get the shaft. Worse, it exemplifies how attempts to subsidize the fossil-fuel industry are preventing us from developing sustainable economies. 

Legislators have proposed appropriating $2 million to overturn California’s climate laws on the ground that they’re unfair to coal producers. Though it’s billed as an attempt to revive Utah’s coal industry, the approach is really corporate welfare at its worst.

To be sure, there’s no denying the coal industry is hurting. The number of mines in Utah has fallen by nearly half in the last decade. In Carbon County, where I live and have worked in the mines, the toll of coal’s decline can be seen everywhere. Unemployment remains above the national average, the population is declining as families move out, and household income is dwindling. Our communities are facing severe budget cuts. 

A Union Pacific coal train rolls through Carbon County, Utah.

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Perhaps the ugliest symptom of coal’s decline has been the surge in drug abuse. Carbon County, with a population of about 20,000, has the highest rates of prescription-opioid deaths in Utah. In my neighborhood, I’ve seen firsthand the connection between the fall of coal and the rise of drug abuse. I’ve witnessed the rise in opiate use in many co-workers, and the increase correlates with the steady decline of the coal industry.

But to suggest that the best solution is to use public dollars to pay lawyers to sue on behalf of coal companies ignores the reality underlying our economic plight. The fact is, coal can no longer compete. Even under Donald Trump, probably the most pro-coal president in history, some administration officials acknowledge that it makes no sense to prop up a dying industry. In a stunning rebuke in January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a proposal to subsidize electric utilities that use coal as unjust and unreasonable.

Coal company executives — including the notorious Bob Murray, who owns several mines here in Utah — were upset with the commission’s decision, even suggesting that the president “fire” its members. But it makes no sense to waste our hard-earned money trying to keep the likes of Murray in business. This is the man whose lax mining practices led to the deaths of six men when his Crandall Canyon Mine collapsed.

Right now, communities throughout the American West are investing in clean energy and other economic alternatives to fossil fuels. Developing wind and solar holds enormous promise, as renewable energy becomes increasingly affordable and available. It was stunning to hear a recent report from Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, that found it was less costly to develop wind and solar than to develop existing coal-fired power plants.

The problem is not that the coal industry isn’t sufficiently subsidized. It’s that our elected leaders refuse to invest in alternatives. The millions of Utah taxpayer dollars that would go to fund a lawsuit against California could do much to improve our quality of life in Utah and give us a path toward real economic success.

I’m not anti-coal, I’m just pro-reality. In Carbon County, Utah, and in other Western communities, our future is abundantly clear. We need to move beyond coal and embrace and cultivate economic alternatives. I choose to move beyond, and I challenge elected officials in Utah and throughout the American West to do the same.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].