Live on stage in the Great Northwest: King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 1

You could it see it coming a mile away.

King Coal rumbled into town with carloads of money, but they needed local cover.  Opportunistic PR and legal firms welcomed the business.  Sure, it carried some environmental freight, but it was okay because they appeared to be erring on the side of jobs – the only coin of the political realm at the time.

Then comes the reckoning:  Sightline Institute follows the money, exposing the hypocrisy of consultants using their green reputations to hawk Coal.  The Seattle Times does a big front page expose.  David Roberts at Grist takes the gloves all the way off.  The smackdown goes viral.  The consultants get their due.King coal 2

Betrayal.  Greenwashing.  Jobs vs. the environment.  Battle lines are drawn, sides chosen.  An epic battle looms.  There is dramatic fulfillment in this, a sense that we’ve fallen into a familiar narrative structure.  That’s what we do to make sense of the world:  find an archetypal story, fit reality to it, and then play our roles.

But before we act out this whole long, sad, bloody spectacle, let me just say:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  We shouldn’t be having this fight in this community.  We’ve been hoodwinked into becoming characters in somebody else’s story.  The real villain here is the desperate and dangerous coal industry. 

We’re tackling the climate challenge and creating jobs by building our clean energy economy and reducing domestic coal consumption.  It’s great for us and the rest of the planet, but it’s an existential threat to the U.S. coal industry.  So King Coal is hell-bent on reaching new markets.  They’re willing to mow down anything in their way, including us – the folks who are on our way to building the nation’s first coal-free energy system.

For them, that irony is delicious.  For us, it’s beyond tragic.

Since the coal industry can’t publicly represent themselves, they’ve built front groups, greased palms, and hired local talent so they don’t have to show their faces.  Not surprisingly, we coal export opponents connect the dots and call out the complicity.  The consultants got too close to the villain, and got the stink all over them.  I applaud Sightline for exposing this and demanding accountability.  But the whole damned coal-sponsored drama is toxic.  Dividing and devastating communities has always been the coal industry’s M.O..

We can’t let them do it here.  The great Pacific Northwest is not a global coal depot, a pusher for fossil fuel addiction, a logistics hub for climate devastation.  We’re the last place on Earth that should settle for a tired old retread of the false choice between jobs and the environment.  Coal export is fundamentally inconsistent with our vision and values.  It’s not just a slap in the face to “green” groups.  It’s a moral disaster and an affront to our identity as a community.

We have come too far together.  We’ve done too much to make our region a proving ground for a better way forward, a way that doesn’t end in catastrophic climate disruption.  We don’t have to play out this false and fruitless drama like puppets on a stage built by and for King Coal.

I know this appeal to our common identity may sound hollow if you don’t have a job and the coal industry has promised you one. But our identity isn’t just a green cultural amenity.  It’s the meaning of our past and the driver for our future.  It propels our economy.  It’s what makes this such a uniquely desirable and productive place.   If we squander our freight capacity, our waterways, our health, our quality of life, and our regional brand on coal export, the loss of jobs and opportunity will dwarf the blip of construction jobs building coal depots.  As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company, said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:

 “Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.  We have 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound; now our marine livelihoods are at stake. A job is not necessarily a livelihood. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource. We have a moral obligation to reject this proposal.”

When this whole drama is over, I believe we will affirm our regional identity – our core, shared commitment to sustainable, broadly-shared health and prosperity – and conclude that coal trafficking is the opposite of that.   What’s so crazy and sad is that people who share those values are now commercially obligated to argue that a massive expansion of global coal commerce is the right thing for us, the right thing to do as the climate crisis deepens.  No matter how much money King Coal throws at them, they will fail.  But in the meantime, what a tragic, unnecessary setback for our community…what a godawful mess.

Yes, they got themselves into it.  And maybe the die is now cast.  But before we concede that – before anyone in our community further commits themselves to repeat the demonstrably false and irresponsible rationalizations for coal export – I’m hoping some of them might be willing to think this through again.  Because the longer we play out King Coal’s sad puppet show, the worse it gets for our community.

This will take a little doing, because the layers of rationalization around coal export are so thick.  And this post is already too long.

So in part 2 of this post, we look at the most compelling reason to reject coal export – the one that should make further discussion unnecessary:  Because it’s wrong.

In part 3, we further explore why coal export is an economically and culturally devastating affront to our identity as a region and a community.  It’s just not us.

In part 4, we: a) catalogue some of the ways in which coal export proponents try to evade responsibility for climate and other impacts; b) demonstrate that they are false, and then c) propose that we should stop having those arguments because they divert our attention from what’s really important: it’s wrong and it’s not us.

And then we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.  OK?

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