Photo of Harlowton, MT which was once booming due to its railroad influence from the coal mining industry. Photo credit: Stephanie Fisher
The multi-billion dollar coal industry is dying; there I said it. Many of you most likely already know that coal operations are being shut down, downsized, and once-prosperous energy moguls are filing for bankruptcy all across the United States, particularly in the Northern Plains states. Since coal is moving towards its inevitable termination over the next decade or two, the energy market’s next task will be how it replaces the electricity generation and respectable jobs that were once provided through the coal industry.
I am majoring in geoscience and environmental studies with an emphasis in renewable energy systems and resources. I have immersed myself in the transition away from coal to renewable energy with hopes to work in the renewable energy field that will be ignited from the migration away from coal. I am travelling from Billings, MT to Glacier National Park with 12 other energy and climate change enthusiasts on a touring bicycle for the next month while visiting a coal mine and camping on the outskirts of towns that have been impacted by the coal boom and bust cycle. This cycle has promoted short term prosperity, but induced long term struggle on the towns.
There is no doubt that the coal industry has been the backbone of states’ economies such as Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado for years, but due to oil and natural gas exploration and advancements, expensive and dirty coal is being replaced. While this transition may be a huge step in the correct direction to combat climate change and other issues that coal mining and burning has caused to the environment, it does mean that a large workforce will be losing their job in these Northern Plains states. While the negative environmental impact that coal has on the Earth caught my attention and influenced my career goals of working with renewables, this is not the case for many workers in the coal industry. Job loss and unemployment has become a central action point in politics, so the transition off coal will be heavily influenced by political decision making. The interests of large coal corporations center on squeezing every last penny out of the dying industry, but the job situation runs much deeper than profit return.
Towns that I visited in Montana such as Roundup and Harlowton directly stem from coal mines popping up with the potential for great profits. Since the 1970’s when coal began being used more extensively for electricity, Roundup and other nearby communities were funded almost entirely by the tax revenue created by the coal industry, including the nearby Signal Peak. Their infrastructure such as schools, municipal buildings, and roads were critical to happiness and continued residence in the town, which were often hard to come by in western mining towns. From my interactions with some residents of Roundup who grew up with the Signal Peak providing tax revenue benefits, there was almost a feeling of being indebted to the coal industry for their contributions. An elderly lady at the church where we spent a night at in Roundup expressed the appreciation she had for what the coal industry had provided her and her family. Based on the tax benefits that she had experienced, she still supported the use of coal for electricity generation. In order to make a supported transition off coal, the workers of the coal industry must be accounted for and taken care of through job security.
Most people are supportive of coal use for purely economic reasons. With growing awareness of the impact of fossil fuels, people are slowly noticing the urgency and viability of renewable resources and their potential for electricity generation. For me, a career in either thorough remediation of land impacted by the use of fossil fuels or the implementation of renewable energy systems would be ideal. Whenever I tell others about turning this passion of mine into a career, I am bombarded by people of all generations with comments about how vital this profession is to the environment and how intriguing and cutting edge the field is. Those comments are primarily coming from liberal-minded, Madison, WI community members, where I go to college, which is generally a completely different perspective from those involved in the coal industry.
It is never ideal to switch jobs and start over in a new profession; however, working in a dying industry without any backup plan for its closure could be detrimental. Replacing coal industry jobs with renewable energy jobs is a very likely, transferable, and cost effective solution. Transmission lines already run from central Montana to Seattle and can be dispersed to west coast states that are on the forefront of the movement to using renewable energy in the United States, meaning buyers with large scale demand. The lines can continue to carry electricity from Montana to their buyers, but instead, the lines will be filled with clean, green electricity.
In regards to transferable jobs, the coal operations will have to be properly decommissioned, which includes reclamation of the mines, proper handling of polluted ash ponds, and large scale demolition of the structures if they cannot be converted to a compressed natural gas plant or other applicable usage. This will include skills that are acquired while working in the coal industry, such as heavy machinery experience, manual labor, environmental, civil, geological, and mechanical engineering disciplines, steel and iron work, and pipe fitting to name a few. Miners and technicians familiar with the particular mine or similar work may be the best prospects for its cleanup force. These job skills do not just apply to the ending of the coal industry, but also to the implementation and upkeep of renewables. While renewable energy is not something brand new, especially in Montana, the number of workers in the industry will need to increase significantly in order to take on the load that coal still consumes. The necessary workforce can be achieved through those currently employed in the coal industry as well as the influx of new job-seekers like me with an environmentally-minded approach. The combination of hard-workers from the coal industry and recent college graduates with an environmental emphasis could catalyze the renewable industry. In return, renewable energy implementation will create jobs that are available for those with skills in applicable engineering disciplines, environmental assessment and impact specialists, heavy machinery operators, metal work, electricians, and other specific technicians, many of which exist in the coal industry.
The manager of the Invenergy Judith Gap Wind Farm called working in wind a blue collar job with a white collar background, especially in electrical knowledge. Thus wages are competitive and comparable to working in coal mines, with wages exceeding $40 per hour for experienced technicians. While visiting the Signal Peak coal mine, the ground operations manager stated that nearly 98% of his new employees in the past four months have been younger and do not have prior mining experience. This indicates experienced miners are retiring and providing opportunities to the younger generations to fill openings. If workers can be thrown into a coal mine and be successful, there is no doubt that the same transition to renewable energy jobs can be made too.
Northern Plain states reaped multiple benefits from the coal industry, but the one that was harmed from the industry was the environment. In order to continue to admire the great outdoors, like I am doing on this bike tour through Montana, we must be mindful of our actions on the Earth. With the decline of the coal industry, it is the perfect time for renewable energy adoption to swoop in and fill the jobs that were provided from coal. The current dedication to coal is based on a fear of losing well paying, consistent jobs, but that fear can be diminished using skills acquired from coal work and transferring them to the renewable energy job sector.