The True Cost of Coal and the Clean Energy Transition

By Aaron Hersum, with contributions from Jess Halvorsen, Tilly Pick, and Eric Grunebaum
photo credit: Paul Corbit Brown

The Last Mountain, a 2011 Sundance Festival film, illuminates a stunning trend in the energy sector that I did not anticipate when I decided to attend BASG’s “Clean Energy Transition” event. We are spending billions of dollars not to transition to a clean energy economy through political and lobbying dollars. $86 million by the coal industry to keep removing mountains. $350 million by the railroad industry to keep their largest freight from disappearing. And a whopping $1 billion by coal burning electric companies to continue producing half of America’s electricity from coal. Those are just the facts shared in the film. I imagine there is a lot more corporate lobbying like this which aims to “preserve” where we have come from rather than to embrace what lies ahead through better public policy and better engaging each other about how we can build a clean energy economy.

But the evening did not disappoint. Far from it. Great minds of sustainability-conscious Bostonians were gathered in the same room with phenomenal speakers doing amazing work in their respective fields. The discussion centered around legislative insight from Representative Lori Ehrlich along with Christophe Courchesne, Chief of the Environmental Protection Division at the MA Attorney General’s office, with color commentary from the making of The Last Mountain by producer Eric Grunebaum. 


There were even explosions! (On screen only, but still the kind we’d rather not have happen). The Last Mountain supplied a visual learner such as myself with affecting images and stories to augment the necessity of a transition to clean, renewable and healthy energy sources. I think that oftentimes, when we are not directly affected by the externalities of dirty energy such as coal pollution, we forget that producing this energy literally sickens and kills people. Moreover, the short-term jobs created by such activities are not only limiting long-term livelihood, but currently decreasing as companies attempt to cut costs and mechanize production processes. It turns out that the coal companies themselves have cut most of the jobs by mechanizing mining without meeting and complying  with important environmental regulations.

The fact that Eric was able to share about his work and the making of the film was, as the saying goes, icing on the cake. My immediate reaction after watching a documentary that was produced several years ago is, what has happened since then? Thankfully, Eric was able to answer that and many other questions (P.S., if you have not seen the The Last Mountain, you should. You can stream the 97-minute version here. We watched the 1-hour version at the BASG event).

Perhaps the mission statement of the evening is this: We are down to our last mountain, and must protect it. Literally and figuratively. The predicament in West Virginia represents the fight against an energy sector that must evolve, but resists with all its might, which is plenty. It’s about the human challenge of transitioning to a better place by highlighting a status quo which few of us really know, feel and understand, and which literally is killing the natural environment and the very people for whom it supposedly provides, all to benefit millions of us who are physically and emotionally sheltered from the harm. At its heart, the plight of the Coal River Mountain residents and the discussion in the room is asking this question: Is turning on a light today worth turning off lights tomorrow? Perhaps I should reframe that. How can we as a collective society, better turn lights on today so they’re still working tomorrow?

People probably attend BASG events for different reasons. For new sustainability learning. To engage in conversation around topics we care about. Perhaps just to meet others like themselves. Or to recharge careers in more meaningful ways. That means people are coming together from all kinds and levels of sustainability backgrounds, careers, and life stages. At this particular event, we had people from citizen advisory groups, technology startups, utilities, higher education, and consulting, among many other areas. We were again a microcosm of the green economy, all with the same question on our minds and present throughout the evening: “what can we do?”

A big part of the answer to that question lies within each of us. As a moving story about a community standing up for its kids, families, friends, jobs, and beautiful mountains, The Last Mountain brought into sharp focus that coal’s staggering energy, emissions and public health footprint is impacting each one of us personally. The film and the great conversation that followed made this very clear: “We all have a coal problem”. We, as individuals, have to step up and own the coal problem if we, as a society, want to truly hurry along the clean energy transition.

2 thoughts on “The True Cost of Coal and the Clean Energy Transition

  1. I loved the film and I loved the evening. Thanks so much for working to capture the evening. I personally have purchased 5 copies of the film and am deploying them with educators with the goal of reaching as many as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

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