By Bill Bishop
The news out of the Appalachian coalfields is never that good, but recent reports describe an unrelenting economic collapse. There are less than half the number of working coal miners in Kentucky than just five years ago. West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. And bankruptcy in the coal industry is threatening the pensions of men and women who were promised security in exchange for years working underground.
The nation doesn’t need the coal these communities have been producing for the past century. Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner burning than coal. And the nation is investing more in wind and solar than in carbon-belching power plants. Coal country is accustomed to periodic economic busts, but the sense now is that there is no boom to follow. This is it — the future holds nothing but more layoffs, mounting bankruptcies and shrinking towns.
The 78th General Convention this summer voted to eliminate its investments in corporations that produce fossil fuel and to buy into the “clean energy sector” of the economy. The resolution was a warning that climate change was real and that it was a “matter of moral and theological urgency” for the church to act.
The Episcopal Church is not alone in disinvesting from fossil fuels. The United Church of Christ has dropped all its fossil fuel holdings. The Methodist Church has sold its coal company stocks. The Presbyterian Church USA is considering a clean energy portfolio.
The proposal at the General Convention came from the Western Massachusetts diocese and it contained over 1100 words and 19 footnotes of explanation. There was something missing, however, in all the good description of climate change and the opportunities in “renewable energy and clean technology….”
Coal miners and coal communities.
And that raises a question: If it is a “matter of moral and theological urgency” to stop burning coal now, don’t the same moral and theological demands apply to the consequences of that decision? What responsibility does the church have for the people who are paying the price for our moral statement?
Not much, apparently. The General Convention voted to disinvest in coal, but there was no mention of the people or communities that produced the fuel that we have relied on for longer than any of us have been alive. The Convention did vote to continue its small ($40,000 a year) commitment to the “Appalachian Initiative,” but there was no acknowledgement that fossil fuel disinvestment will have real human costs.
The church can (and should) rectify this “moral and theological” oversight by simply completing both sides of the equation. Yes, we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And, yes, we should support those people and places that will bear the heaviest burden of that decision.
What can the church do? Most immediately, local churches and the national church office could urge passage of the POWER+ Plan, a belated offering from the Obama Administration to the coalfields. POWER+ includes money for job training, grants to coal communities, support for ailing coal miner pension funds and $1 billion in spending over the next five years to clean up abandoned coal strip mines. There is already $2.5 billion in a fund to be used to restore abandoned surface mines. It has been collected over the years in a coal tax. The money simply hasn’t been spent. POWER+ would just spend money the government already has in its accounts (but hasn’t spent in the yearly game of reducing the federal deficit).
POWER+ isn’t much, but it’s something. Coal communities have passed resolutions supporting the proposal. “Our people are desperate,” Harlan County, Kentucky, Judge-Executive Dan Mosley told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. “I do think it could help the county with jobs.”
In the polarized Congress, however, there is little will among either Republicans or Democrats to push POWER+. So the layoffs continue. Schools lose students as people move out of the mountains in search of jobs. Pensioners are threatened daily with reduced monthly checks as companies scour the bankruptcy courts for ways to abandon their obligations.
Fifty-one years ago, President Lyndon Johnson hunkered down on a Kentucky mountaineer’s front porch to talk about his War on Poverty. The Episcopal Church of my youth backed Johnson’s War. Now the region is threatened again by shifts in the economy and the environment. It needs our help and our action.
Bill Bishop is the author, with Robert Cushing, of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. He is a former reporter at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and a current member of St. James Episcopal Church in La Grange, Texas.
image: Mullens, WV, once a thriving coal town. Photo by Jon White