Mining for Answers, Refining Policy, and Polluting Expectations: Exchanging Experiences Between U.S. and German Coal Communities
October 24, 2017
By Gavriela Reiter
Living in Philadelphia following the presidential election, a city that drew much attention from the Democratic National Committee after four visits from Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016, I joined the many people across the nation in search of explanations for the unanticipated results. The resources that the Democratic Party devoted to Philadelphia had tricked me into believing that Philadelphia, was a city that had to be won over by Clinton to ensure victory.
Living in a diverse urban environment, I had believed that in Philadelphia I had daily experience with the complexity of this country, from its industrial past to its gentrifying present, and all the social contexts that change as a result of closed industry. After November 9th, I scoured the Internet, attended university events that I believed would lend some answers, and read Hillbilly Elegy, as many around me recommended. Step by step I attempted to breakdown my Northeastern biases about the United States, yet never physically stepped out of my comfort zone. Little did I know that the true way that I would break down my implicit biases about my own country would be through an international context.
This summer as the Climate, Energy, and Communications Intern at the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America in Washington, D.C., I have come face to face with my identity as a white Northeastern U.S. citizen through observing cross-cultural exchange between Germans and U.S. Americans focusing on coal communities. The Heinrich Boell Foundation is a political foundation associated with the German Green Party, the creator of Germany’s 50-year plan to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, commonly known as the Energiewende. The foundation serves as a catalyst for ideas in green democracy as well as an extensive international network.
In November 2016, Heinrich Boell sponsored the first phase of the Engaging Coal Communities Tour, bringing together 10 local community leaders and activists in the U.S. working on just transitions from coal on a tour through German coal communities. Although both Germany and the United States’ energy makeup contain 40% coal, the coal phase-out contexts are completely different in each country. While the German government is slated to determine a deadline for the complete phase-out of coal in the next few months, President Trump has called for the revitalization of the coal industry through the opening of mines, abandoning public funding for mine bioremediation, and the United State’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. On the tours, participants from Chicago, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, and Montana, working on every framework of coal communities, from policy to remediation, exchanged with German communities facing similar challenges with various solutions.
The best exchanges go in both directions. In July 2017, phase two of the Engaging Coal Communities campaign took place by bringing German energy transition expert Timon Wehnert of the Wuppertal Institute to three of the United States communities represented on the fall tour. Each community visited dealt with a different issue: transitioning from coal mining, transitioning from coal refining, and moving from coal pollution to a clean future. I was lucky have the opportunity to accompany Timon alongside Program Director Nora Loehle to Whitesburg, KT, Buffalo, NY, and Wilkes Barre, PA. At each stop we explored the state of coal in the region through tours and local events. While I had expected the trip to focus on the German experience, each event was truly an exchange of ideas. In each community, following Timon’s presentation on the state of the coal phase-out and structural change in Germany, I observed local community members turning to each other and comparing the German experience to their own, questioning their community’s present state, priorities, and policies, incorporating the values of the German energy transition and social state into a U.S. ground level context.
Eastern Kentucky was a lesson in the various components that make up the expression “just transition.” In Whitesburg, we met with Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, a legal firm that specializes in coal miners rights and black lung cases, and Liz Sanders, the General Manager at WMMT at Appalshop, a local art collective. Both Liz and Eric are members of the civil society organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. While Whitesburg used to contain four coal companies, today, there are only 38 people working in the mines in the region. Liz and Eric took us on a tour of the town, a former coal mine, a mountaintop removal site in Virginia, and the county at whole. Liz taught us that economic transition in the region from a coal based economy must go hand in hand with energy transition to renewable, more efficient energy systems.
Organizations like the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) are also focusing on the revival of the region, pairing small business loans with energy efficiency opportunities. Through a loan from MACED, Glen, a local grocery store owner, improved the store’s energy efficiency so much that the electric bills dropped from $12,000 to $950 a month, allowing Glen to hire four new employees with a living wage working full time while saving energy and stimulating the local economy.
Along with transforming my understanding of just energy transitions, our conversations with Liz, Eric, and local organizations broke down biases that I had been taught in the Northeast and in books such as Hillbilly Elegy following the election. Before arriving in Kentucky, it was my understanding that the aims of revitalization efforts were to encourage those who left the Appalachian region to come back as a way to tackle a so-called “brain drain.” I soon learned that that was not the case. MACED, Appalshop, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth do not believe in limiting the future of Appalachian youth to working in the region but rather are working towards making Appalachia an attractive place for anyone and everyone. The community leaders I spoke to instead want to provide their youth with opportunities to pursue whatever dreams they may have. Just transitions in Eastern Kentucky are not only about coal mining jobs or energy use, but about shaping and activating a shared future vision for the region.
The event in Whitesburg had a similar focus on the outer perception of Appalachian communities but at a federal level, where the Trump Administration is calling for the restarting of the U.S. coal industry. At the Whitesburg event, Timon, Eric, and a representative of MACED each presented their work. Timon spoke about the challenges that coal communities face in Germany and the innovative approaches the German government and society have used to repurpose former mining sites. Eric spoke about the RECLAIM Act and AML Pilot, both which are proposed U.S. federal programs which focus on reclaiming abandoned mines and creating jobs through these cleanup efforts and originated in local Eastern Kentucky proposals. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, both the RECLAIM Act and AML Pilot proposals have bipartisan support, even as the U.S. Senate has discussed proposed cuts or eliminations.
At the event, Eric told the audience, “I think a just transition is possible, we can make it happen… it takes a lot of work to shift that support into the policies that will make that happen.” The MACED representative explained their programs and how they are focusing on what a “post coal economy” looks like. She told the audience “we’ve been hidden from the true cost of energy for a long time.” She also shared opportunities which empower people in communities to know they can create change. MACED is a vehicle to accomplish change by building community level engagement.
The question and answer portion focused mainly on German innovation and how to apply it to the local context. Participants focused on distinguishing outside views of the region from local action. One question that stood out concerned a man that who attempted to create a wind farm in Appalachia in 2006, but was prevented from doing so by the coal lobby. He stated, “We have resources here, we just lack the political will to do it.” He encouraged the room to get more involved in politics to breakdown the coal lobby and federal beliefs that a future of coal is possible. The event echoed the previous questions of transition and perception, distinguishing the Executive Branch’s view of Appalachia from the local experience.
Buffalo, New York
In Buffalo, NY, an exchange about the balance between industry and environmentalism, as well as short term and long-term risk in energy transitions, showed me the current state of the relationship between laborers and environmentalists. Upon arriving in Buffalo, we were greeted by Engaging Coal Communities participants Rebecca of the Western New York Clean Air Coalition and Richard of the Western New York Labor Federation. We then sat down with union leaders from the region. Buffalo has a rich history as a leading industrial city. The two community leaders successfully worked together in a “blue-green alliance” during the shutdown of the Huntley coal facility in 2016. By combining environmental justice and union concerns and priorities, this alliance ensured a just transition and cleaner air through the phase-out of the coal industry.
After Timon presented about the Energiewende and Germany’s coal phase-out, we had an open conversation about the importance of long-term planning and the differences between social safety nets in the two countries. Richard’s experience in Germany in November led him to praise Germany’s coalition-based parliamentary government system. He felt that when a government relies on compromise, policymakers can focus on the social mission of government, ultimately allowing for a smooth and just coal transition. Richard pointed out that questions like a full economy shift from fossil fuels are exactly the dilemmas which the German government is prepared to address through its social programs. Today, he explained, Germany is trying to build its economy through smart growth. Timon agreed.
In Germany, because of social government benefits, energy transition is not a question of what happens to individual jobs but rather what is best for the future economy. This social safety net ultimately allows industry to take short-term risks for the long-term longevity and betterment of its citizens and the planet at large. A representative of the steel union explained to Timon why the United States has a such a focus on short term planning, stating that even long term 20 year plans in industry are “kicking the trash down the road” until a new federal administration comes on in 8 years and all the policy is changed. He spoke of the typical U.S. mentality that 20 years from now, none of us will be here and everything will be different. Through this exchange, the room evaluated the United State’s coal communities’ capacity to take risks, the need for long term thinking, and the need for government financed social programs, which have the potential to provide a better future for workers and the earth.
Wilkes-Barre, PA, a former coal community, is looking for opportunities to capitalize on the waste that the coal industry left behind while also navigating state politics heavily influenced by the fossil fuel lobby. Although I have lived in Philadelphia for the past four years, a city central to energy transportation and export, I had yet to come face to face to the very extraction sites that these resources come from. Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR) is working on what comes after coal: environmental cleanup, a transition into thinking of new economic ideas, and capitalizing on the region’s pollution problems.
Bobby and Michael, who came to Germany with the group in the fall, led us around the region. They showed us different forms of pollution that the coal industry left behind, from iron polluted orange colored rivers to the economic degradation the region has faced. They also talked to us about the current energy politics of Pennsyvlania, which was largely impacted by the natural gas fracking boom of 2012. At the evening’s event at Wilkes University, following Timon’s presentation on coal mining in Germany, the panelists- which included four members of local civil society organizations, a candidate for the County Council, and a Professor at the University- all turned to each other and discussed the possibility for State incentives for renewables. They agreed that the largest barrier in Pennsylvania is the State’s long legacy of extraction.
Pennsylvania is highly influenced by the fossil fuel lobby and spends $3.2 billion on fossil fuel subsidies every year, resulting in fewer opportunities for local clean energy. The
State currently has an energy portfolio containing 30% coal, 30% natural gas and nuclear, and a goal of 8% renewable energy by 2020. Rob Altenburg of Pennfuture explained that the State has capacity for 30% of its energy to come from rooftop solar alone, but that the political will of the State is not there. Lindsay Baxter of Pennsylvania Environmental Coalition told the room that there are 66,000 clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania, with 80% of those jobs in energy efficiency. She said that she has always looked towards Germany as an example, where the energy positive she believes is explicit and makes sense with a “clear ends to a means”. Wendy Cominsky, a candidate for County Counsel, is actively engaging with her community members to plan sustainable, profitable options for the future of the County, and had high praise for Germany’s local renewable cooperatives. Ms. Cominsky asked Timon questions about community solar systems, an issue important to her as she hopes to stimulate the local economy through community energy capacity. Bobby from EPCAMR agrees with this approach in boosting the economy, believing that the region needs to profit from its environmental degradation. He spoke of opportunities to re-mine and reclaim old mines, either through turning coal piles into taxable parcels through field and rec opportunities or by using polluted waterways as sources for graywater that is portable and easily sellable. Wilkes-Barre, a region that is depleted of natural resources and economic opportunity illustrates the long lasting negative impact of the coal industry, is seeking opportunities to use what was left behind while uplifting their community. So how do we get the state to listen?
Cross cultural exchange at an international level taught me about myself in a domestic context. By accompanying two Germans through the United States’ coal country, I was able to experience places in my own country that I had never been to before. This trip was, in many ways, an out of body experience. While listening both to how local community members explain their experiences to true outsiders, and the takeaways that those from abroad walked away with, I was able to bear witness to the realities facing coal communities. Interacting with actors also expanded my understanding of our country.
In addition, this experience allowed me to be part of a successful collaboration between grassroots, local U.S. action and international researchers. This collaboration pairs faces and stories with quantitative and evaluative data, allowing for the world to humanize its most pressing dilemmas. By seeing Germans and U.S. Americans come together over similar questions of coal phase-out, I was ultimately able to question and evaluate my own biases and assumptions about red regions of the United States. Through interacting with environmental action on local scales, I was able to connect local concern for the future of energy to national and international climate action.
Exchange is essential for problem solving. Getting out of our comfort zones and seeing how others may address the same problem allows us to expand our own mental capacities for innovation. Dialoguing with actors in communities that have different viewpoints than I expected allowed me to not place assumptions on these communities as a whole. While watching international agreements and political statements unfold, it is key to remember that local actors and experiences are the backbone of what is truly happening on the ground.
A just transition from coal mining, coal refining, and coal pollution is possible. Now the question remains: how are we going to hold our political systems accountable through local and social action in order to take short term risks for long term solutions?
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