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Time for Pennsylvania to take control of its economic future

Cheaper natural gas flooding the markets in Pennsylvania has pushed costlier coal-fired power to the brink of elimination. Lost in the bargain is the fate of workers and communities that have long labored for coal. Who will come to their aid?

In the past, no one has. I grew up in the small Cambria County coal mining village of Blandburg. Both of my grandfathers mined coal and had black-lung disease complicate their deaths. My late father worked as a coal miner for much of his life-including as a high school student on third shift during World War II — before a mine accident injured his back. I worked in the coal industry for 14 years before becoming a local church pastor.

I lived through the boom and bust coal cycles in the 1960’s and 1970’s. No one other than family and church members rallied to the miners’ aid as the mines closed — it was just business!

Today, the coal industry nationwide has been rapidly losing market share to gas and renewable energy. A former Wyoming coal worker recently stated, “Coal provided a fabulous living to me and a lot of people,” he says. “But the writing is on the wall. If you don’t see it, you’re living in a dream world.”

In 2005, coal plants produced 55 percent of Pennsylvania’s energy. By last year, coal’s share had fallen to just 17 percent, as 18 coal-fired plants closed or converted to gas. At a recent legislative hearing, a union official testified that the small number of remaining coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania “would retire in the next five to 10 years.”

The shift away from coal is good news for our climate: carbon pollution from coal is the largest single contributor to climate change in the energy sector. It is good for public health: air pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked with asthma, heart and lung ailments, cancer, and other health problems. It is good for energy consumers: gas and renewables are cheaper than coal. But coal’s demise is sad and difficult for the workers in those few remaining coal-fired power plants and the communities where they live. Pennsylvania must help.

Pennsylvania’s legislative leaders, utilities, coal companies, and business groups took little action in the past to protect workers affected by this energy transition.

Now, these same interests are opposing a new initiative that could produce funds to support worker and community transition and set the stage for a stronger, cleaner Pennsylvania economy.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, is a successful, bipartisan, multistate program to reduce carbon pollution that causes climate change, while generating proceeds that can be used to position Pennsylvania as a leader in the growing clean energy economy and support workers and communities affected by the transition away from coal. Through RGGI, limits are placed on carbon pollution from power plants, and power companies purchase allowances based on how much carbon pollution they produce. The proceeds are placed in a fund for use by Pennsylvania.

RGGI has been a big success in the 10 states where it is already in place. It is time for Pennsylvania to tap into RGGI’s record of success.

A recent analysis found that Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI will lead to a net increase of more than 27,000 jobs and boost the state’s economy by nearly $2 billion. With the proceeds, RGGI presents a unique opportunity to ensure fairness for workers and communities through early intervention to get ahead of the coming plant closures.

Pennsylvania has two options: Reject RGGI and allow the last coal-fired plants to eventually close, with little or no help to cushion the blow, leaving workers and communities with nothing, or adopt RGGI to create thousands of new jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year through 2030, some of which could be used to help workers and communities making the transition away from coal.

Some legislators appear to be embracing the “do nothing” option by simply attacking RGGI instead of offering to help forge workable solutions. Coal jobs are going to disappear. Period. There is no stopping this reality. However, we can offer hope and do the moral, biblical, and right thing by using RGGI proceeds to help reduce the fear and offer a chance for new careers.

The benefits of participating in RGGI are clear and significant: improved public health; new jobs, economic development, and a strong clean energy infrastructure; and support for workers and communities affected by the energy market’s transition.

It is time Pennsylvania takes control of its economic future and takes care of its own, rather than sit and wait for the worst to happen yet again.

The Rev. Mitchell Hescox is president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

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