When President Trump signed an executive order last month upending the Obama administration’s climate-change policies, he was capitalizing on Appalachia’s long-standing ecological disaster, stoking resentment against environmental regulations and vowing to restore King Coal to its past glory.
But although Trump has rolled back the “war on coal” and eased dumping restrictions, promising to “bring back” mining jobs won’t upend the reality of today’s global energy landscape, as renewables like solar and wind grow more affordable and accessible, and coal’s environmental harms prove unsustainable.
But if you can’t save coal, can you still save coal country? A grassroots environmental-justice coalition called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), representing coal communities, rural and urban poor, and environmental and consumer groups, is pulling ahead of both Washington and state politicians by embracing a green transition. Ending coal’s hegemony in a solidly red state is an uphill climb—considering that Congress is currently stalling even on funding for basic health-care benefits for mine workers. However KFTC hopes those communities most devastated by coal extraction are ready to lead a transition toward solar and wind as a source of both clean power and community empowerment.
Over a 15-to-20 year period, KFTC’s Empower Kentucky plan would bring about a reduction of 40 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, which would also prevent the emission of “93 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide and 132 thousand tons of nitrogen oxide pollution over 15 years.” The reduction in acute air pollution would help protect public health on top of mitigating the more global impacts of greenhouse gases. By 2032, the plan would generate some 43,000 new green-energy-based jobs and invest $11 billion in energy efficiency. The plan would channel about $387 million into local funds for a “just transition” to clean power, boosted by lower residential energy bills.
Drawing on mapping data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the plan targets communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by coal-related pollutants as well as ozone and lead exposure. The program also targets poor communities of all backgrounds surrounding oil and gas wells, which are exposed to more acute environmental impacts of the region’s entrenched extractive industries. Tackling environmental injustice in areas of production as well as emissions would comprehensively address the needs of fossil-fuel-dependent mining towns and communities especially burdened by toxic air and dumping. Because across all impacted communities, poor public health—from asthma to black lung—chronic poverty, and eroding social mobility intersect under coal’s grip.