Dirty Energy, Dirty Jobs? Ethical Entanglements in the US Coal Market Collapse

Jessica M. Smith

The US coal industry appears to have entered a terminal bust, spurred by technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling, low natural gas prices, and federal clean power regulations that will hasten the retirement of coal-fired plants. With few exceptions, the collapse is celebrated as a victory in mitigating climate change. Miners appear in these debates very rarely, but when they do, it is as inevitable collateral damage in the welcomed transition to cleaner energy futures. In Wyoming, the state that is currently the country’s largest producer of coal, the swift change in fortunes has engendered intense reconsideration of the ethics of energy and markets. This paper explores the ethical sense-making of the Wyoming miners, who find themselves facing not simply a loss of employment, but a loss of the relationships of energy production and consumption that formed the basis of their personhood and vocation. But the ethical framework they are crafting to understand the collapse is more complex than a simple glorification of labor, no matter the climate cost, as they find themselves critical of their industry’s contribution to global warming. Taking seriously the plight of the miners sheds light on how actors who are maligned for causing harm—as the slope from dirty energy to dirty jobs done by immoral people is a slippery one—craft themselves as ethical persons.