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Sierra magazine
Can Green Jobs Save Coal States?

The number of coal-industry jobs has plummeted by half since 1985. Technological advances have allowed companies to extract more coal with fewer workers, while depleted resources in traditional coal states and environmental regulations favoring low-sulfur coal have made production cheaper in western states like Wyoming and Montana, shifting jobs away from the coal-industry stronghold of Appalachia.

Meanwhile, the green economy is blossoming. In nearly every state, clean-energy jobs are increasing at a faster pace than the job rate as a whole. Wind-industry jobs jumped 70 percent in 2008; total wind jobs nationwide now surpass the number of coal miners. And the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a.k.a. the federal stimulus package—is pumping millions of dollars into green-job training programs. The chart below shows how even the biggest coal-producing states are benefiting from the new green economy.

Texas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are among the top-10 coal states, but they're also in the top 10 for green-energy jobs. The recession has seen Pennsylvania's and Illinois's green-job numbers drop somewhat, but the decline is still smaller than overall job losses. Indiana and Colorado aren't among the top green-job states yet, but their green economies are growing at a faster clip than the leaders'.

Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, and Kentucky all have tiny green economies but a high potential for growth. Wyoming, for example, had the fewest green-energy jobs in 2007, but it is developing new ones faster than all but three other states. North Dakota has the advantage of being the windiest state in the country, and Montana and Wyoming are also top candidates for wind development.

West Virginia still gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal, more than any other state. Coal jobs make up about 5 percent of the state's economy (excluding military jobs), and it has been slow to develop green jobs. Over the past decade, West Virginia was one of only a handful of states in which the number of green jobs didn't grow faster than the average job rate. Even so, there are hopeful signs. West Virginia is launching its first-ever green-jobs training program, funded by a $6 million stimulus grant. Two new wind projects went online in 2008, and others are under construction. There's also a big push to build wind turbines atop Coal River Mountain—otherwise slated for removal to get at the coal underneath.
—Katherine Glover

Illustration by Daniel Krall



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