Evan Hansen: Time to talk about a fair energy transition

In his Oct. 2 op-ed, United Mineworkers of America President Cecil Roberts makes an excellent point. We should work together to develop a more sustainable, robust economy in Appalachia that provides opportunity for every working family, including coal miners. I couldn’t agree more.

We needed to start this conversation at least a decade ago. This became evident when I co-authored a report in 2010 that concluded: “Coal production in Central Appalachia is on the decline, and this decline will likely continue in the coming decades. Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region’s coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.”

I’m not a psychic, and I don’t tell fortunes. But I do review data. Even in 2010, it was clear that coal production was plummeting in West Virginia as natural gas drilling picked up steam, renewables dropped in price and the rich coal reserves in the southern coalfields dwindled.

While this decline in coal production was predictable, I couldn’t imagine back then that I would get elected to the House of Delegates, where I now have a window into the policies that state leaders implement — or fail to implement — as this crisis gets worse.

And it truly is a crisis. Thousands of miners have lost their jobs. As coal companies declare bankruptcy, miners, retirees and their families face the prospects of losing pensions and health care benefits that they earned through years of hard work. Communities are breaking down, school systems are in trouble and the state budget is more difficult to balance. Drug addiction is rampant, life expectancy is down and thousands of children are in need of loving foster homes.

Many state leaders knew that this downward spiral was coming to West Virginia, but refused to publicly acknowledge it, let alone enact policies that, in Cecil’s words, would develop a more sustainable, robust economy. The result? A cruel transition toward poverty, hopelessness, and addiction.

Recently on the House floor, I spoke about the need for a just transition. A just transition starts with acknowledging reality — that Wests Virginia coal production has dropped from 162 to just 95 million tons since 2001. And that it is likely to drop further if more coal-fired power plants close. There will be fewer good, high-paying union coal mining jobs.

But a just transition also acknowledges that it’s unfair for coal miners — who have sacrificed so much over generations for this state and country — to be left behind as the country’s energy production shifts. In a just transition, we appreciate this history while fighting for new opportunities for miners and their families.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 19-1314, creating a Just Transition Office and a Just Transition Advisory Committee, which will draft a transition plan. West Virginia should follow suit.

A Just Transition Plan would identify West Virginia’s best options to provide new opportunities for laid-off coal miners, and to ensure that children growing up in mining communities have opportunities to make living wages without moving away. We need to find ways for our cities and towns throughout the southern coalfields, and across West Virginia, to return to the prosperity that they witnessed decades ago.

Do I have all the answers? Of course not. But the right team of legislators, labor leaders, locally elected officials from mining-dependent counties, nonprofit leaders and others need to get to work now, without further delay, to find a path forward. As Cecil said, we need to talk specifics, not wishes.

We can honor West Virginia’s proud coal mining heritage and history while at the same time preparing for the future.

Evan Hansen is a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates from Monongalia County and president of Downstream Strategies, an environmental and economic development consulting company.