Don’t harass our coal miners
A group called High Country Rising Tide announced this month that it plans to mount a series of “arrestable” protests in Wyoming this year, including “confronting mine operators and law enforcement in Campbell County,” according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
Such a spectacle would certainly draw attention to the group’s concern about climate change from the burning of Powder River Basin coal. But it’s an awfully bad idea.
I’m a former Powder River Basin coal miner (I worked two summers as a college “summer hire;” one summer driving haul truck and another working on a maintenance crew). And I’m a Gillette native with plenty of friends and family who work at Powder River Basin coal mines. I’m sickened at the thought that anyone would harass our coal miners as they go to work and try to earn a living.
I’m also a journalist who passionately supports freedom of speech, including public protests. But this idea to create a spectacle by harassing coal miners is wrong. There are many legitimate reasons to challenge policies surrounding the use of coal, but shouting down the men and women who go to work each day at Wyoming coal mines misses the mark on so many levels.
Protest if you must, but every protester should know that if they harass coal miners they are doing a huge injustice to working class Americans responsible for one of the most amazingly well-operated industries in the world. They’re also doing much more to de-legitimize reasonable criticisms of the industry and our current energy policy than they are driving smart policy.
During the past 15 years our coal industry, and our elected officials here in Wyoming have had a series of opportunities to support, and own, cleaner coal technologies that would keep coal viable under tougher emission standards, and they have consistently slapped away that out-stretched hand of opportunity. Now the industry — focused more on markets than American energy policy — is putting its efforts toward shipping one of America’s greatest energy resources to China. They deceivingly place the blame on so-called obstructionists.
Taunting coal miners in Wyoming only plays into the hands of coal industry lobbyists, who will easily portray the spectacle as a misinformed movement to hobble America’s energy engine. And a counter movement has already sprung to life in Gillette; “Friends of Coal” launched a Facebook page that quickly gained 3,000 members, according to the Gillette News-Record.
During my tenure as a mechanic’s helper and parts-delivery person in Gillette (another job I had, related to the coal industry in Wyoming), I visited every coal mine in the state. I worked long hours at many of those mines, and I had to cross a picket line at a mine in Colorado. In my 15 years as a Wyoming journalist, I visited several more coal mines, including one in China, and I covered high-level discussions on energy policy in the U.S., China and Germany.
I’m under no obligation to commit carte blanche support of coal mining, or of every protest — even if protests are critically important and an integral part of our freedom of speech doctrine. But I am committed to this; harassing coal miners on their way to and from work is wrong. It’s your right if you choose to do it, but why insult our mining workers and their families in Wyoming?
In fact, if I had to choose where in America to mine 400 million tons-plus of coal per year, I would pick the Powder River Basin. Its rural population and relatively flat, arid landscape provides ample opportunity for reclamation and relatively safe strip-mining practices — certainly a far safer and more environmentally-suited place to mine coal than the Appalachian mountains where underground mining and mountaintop removal is a bane to both the environment and its communities. I have complaints, and I have reported on them, about workplace safety and environmental impacts from mining in the Powder River Basin. I also dislike the fact that managers and supervisors have pressured workers to “vote right” on election day. But I suspect that High Country Rising Tide has no idea what a well-managed operation and critical energy lifeline we have in Wyoming coal.
Don’t mistake my praise as full support for a coal-burning energy system that was born in the Victorian Age and still fills our air, land, water and lungs with a laundry list of pollutants. We can do much better. Even Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead — who is under great political obligation to support Wyoming coal — said recently, “Wyoming needs to figure out different and cleaner coal uses.” Legitimate criticism of policies related to our coal-energy complex would be taken more seriously if it were aimed at the perpetrators of bad policy — lobby groups and elected officials — rather than coal miners, whom I respect. You should respect them, too.
Yes, I’m an advocate of smarter energy policies that would reduce the environmental footprint of coal — but not necessarily to champion for the possible outcome of reducing the mining or use of coal. If the coal industry had embraced carbon capture and sequestration technologies when it had the opportunity to do so 10 years ago, it would have secured the future of Wyoming’s $1 billion per-year revenue workhorse, and Wyoming may have gained a foothold in a lucrative new world market in technologies that we could sell to emerging economies. No wonder American utilities are ending their love affair with coal and making overtures to cheaper — for now — natural gas. Instead, the coal industry won the battle against smarter energy policy for the short-term preservation of our current energy system, and it abandoned America’s long-term energy interests to invigorate China’s economy and further pollute the world environment.
I am also an advocate of hard working people who deserve policies with a long-term view of energy and environmental considerations — not the insult of waving placards in the faces of our coal miners. By the way, you’d be amazed at the diversity of Wyoming coal miners; people who also care deeply for the wildlife and wild spaces they get to enjoy here in Wyoming afforded with their coal mine job salaries. Folks who are considering harassing these workers would do us all a favor to instead join the less headline-catching work of coming to terms with difficult energy policies and diligently working to change them for the better.
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected].
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