Justin Raines, a sixth-generation West Virginian, worked in the oil and gas industry for 12 years before deciding to leave fossil fuel work behind. The driving force in that decision: dirty energy has harmed his land, home and community.
“The more I looked at it and the more I looked at my own personal experience in the oil fields … the more I realized this was the not the way we needed to go for our state and our people,” Raines says. “It’s important to see future generations of West Virginians getting better care and support than I had when I was young.”
We met Justin Raines in the fall of 2017, as the Sierra Club traveled through the American South talking to folks about the coal that is fouling their air and water, the dirty energy projects they’re fighting in their backyards, and a shared vision for a clean energy economy that allows all of our communities to thrive.
We met people in six states who told us powerful stories about the places that are special to them — and the threats to those places from dirty energy.
Throughout the South, we compiled the stories of these communities in an audio project called “The Land I Trust.” We wanted people who wouldn’t ordinarily encounter these voices to hear the stories of those affected by climate change — and the dirty energy forces that are driving it.
These personal stories are powerful. The national conversation on energy, coal and climate change usually is expressed in terms of numbers. Getting out into communities showed us something important, however: the choices that cause coal ash to foul our streams and fracked gas to threaten our way of life have real human consequences that have not gone unnoticed in rural America. Neither have the job creation benefits of clean energy, which in many places is cheaper than dangerous, dirty coal.
The current federal administration’s support for the fossil fuel industry is clear. But the stories we collected show the grassroots support for a truly 100 percent clean energy economy.
As the public demand for new protections from coal and fracked gas increases, the viability of fossil fuels, particularly coal, is on a downward spiral. The coal industry is failing to maintain a competitive edge with cheaper and cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar.
People see that every day. In Florida, we got to share in the excitement of Clean Energy Girl, Susan Glickman, who has enthusiastically watched the price of solar drop, exponentially. Yet the Sunshine State continues to spend $50 billion a year importing fuel from elsewhere, in an effort to keep a dying industry alive.
In our travels, we heard about the real effects of a warming world — from fishermen and football coaches in Alabama whose passions are being threatened by hotter summers. Every facet of life will be affected by the choices we make today, and everyday people notice.
Dirty energy and pollution disproportionately affects communities of color, communities where the fossil fuel industry chooses to build unhealthy structures like the compressor station. Just ask John and Ruby Laury of Buckingham County, Virginia, a predominantly African-American community where Dominion Energy plans to build a compressor station as part of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The couple shared with us the environmental injustices their community faces.
There is another way. Leaders across the country are already committing their cities, states and towns to 100 percent renewable energy. And it matters.
Wind and solar industries now employ far more Americans than fossil fuels do. And many locations, renewables are already saving consumers money. Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, is one such leader who shared his hopes of a future clean and healthy America that he is striving toward through his effort to make his city reliant on 100 percent renewable energy.
In the wake of coal’s inevitable decline, we face a choice. Many want to ignore this economic reality and delay, costing more lives and leaving more communities hurt.
There is another way. We can listen to the voices in the affected communities. We did, and learned that the future of energy is clean — and the future is now.