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Keeping Faith with Coal Communities

Former Casper mayor, Wyoming state representative and longtime Wilson resident Jim Barlow, who died several years ago, used to refer to coal mining as not just an industry, but a “way of life.” That way of life is now changing.

The U.S. coal industry is facing an uncertain future. Over the past 15 years one fifth of the coal-fired power plants in the country have been replaced by cleaner and less expensive natural gas, resulting in a dramatic reduction in demand for coal and the loss of many coal jobs across the country. Communities where coal has represented a way of life for generations — as well as communities that have relied on coal revenues for essential public services (e.g., health, education) — are being hollowed out as young people leave in search of jobs elsewhere.

For decades coal miners labored under dangerous conditions in the mines to bring us the amenities of a modern-day lifestyle. It cannot be acceptable for all of us who have come so far on the backs of these workers to abandon them. Nor can we in Wyoming who have benefited from coal’s largesse in public finances afford to break faith with them.

If we look solely to the coal industry to restore these jobs, however, we would be falling into the same old trap of overdependence on a single resource that got us into this hole in the first place. As the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, coal now faces significant new challenges from other energy sources that have become more cost-competitive, even without taking into consideration coal’s environmental costs. A strategy of economic diversification can point the way to a future beyond coal, whatever one’s current assessment of coal’s prospects.

Communities around the country are thinking through the challenge of economic diversification and revitalization. They are finding ways to reinvent themselves by taking stock of their resources, building out their infrastructure and developing homegrown sources of talent. Some of these opportunities may involve renewable energy, either because of natural advantages (e.g., Wyoming’s wind), or because the sectors these communities seek to grow or attract (e.g., information technology, niche manufacturing) tend to favor these sources. Others may be more in the area of straight-out economic development, such as food production and processing, tourism, and entertainment. In all cases, with retraining they have an opportunity to provide new jobs for displaced coal workers.

Without financing to translate these ideas into action, however, the game will be only half-won. The remaining challenge is to find outside sources of financial support. These sources of capital — banks, government agencies, institutional investors, private foundations — can provide badly needed infusions of credit and confidence to enable homegrown initiatives to become self-sustaining. A critical mass of self-sustaining enterprises can in turn add up to a self-sustaining community.

We in Jackson have a stake in the success of these enterprises. Our financing, too, can make a difference. It cannot be in our interest to prosper from locally generated revenues while the rest of the state falls further behind. This widening gap is an invitation to protectionist measures, protecting some interests at the expense of a more cost-effective allocation of resources benefiting the state as a whole. An approach of shared risks and shared rewards can enhance the basis of prosperity for all concerned, giving everyone a larger piece of the pie.

We also have an interest in stating our own vision of a way of life. If that future involves reduced carbon emissions, this can be an opportunity for coal communities to help us build that future through the kinds of new industries they create. We have every reason to expect them to be as invested in our vision of the future, as we are in the way of life to which they aspire.

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