06/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama at Miners Memorial: Pray for the Dead, Fight Like Hell for a Just Transition to a Clean Energy Future

At the public memorial service today for the 29 miners at Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in West VIrginia, President Obama and Vice President Biden will remind the grieving families and all American citizens, "To treat our miners the way they treat each other - like family. For we are all family. We are Americans."

For President Obama, "These miners lived - as they died - in pursuit of the American dream."

But coal miners, and all coalfield residents, also need to be reassured that their lives and sacrifices will be included in the American dream in the future.

Mother Jones, the legendary miner's angel, once reminded our country to "pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."

It's time for President Obama and Vice President Biden to pray for the dead, honor the legacy of our coal miners and coalfield residents, and fight like hell for a "just transition" for a clean energy future--and commit to making the coalfields ground zero for a new clean energy economy.

Coal mining, which provides 45 percent of our electricity, will not end tomorrow. Every coal miner deserves a right to a sustainable livelihood; given the legacy of our coal miners, no coal miner should be displaced from his or her job until we develop clean energy alternatives. This means that coalfield residents, like all Americans, deserve a road map for a feasible transition to clean-energy jobs -- including a Coal Miner's GI Bill for retraining and a massive reinvestment in sustainable economic development in coalfield communities -- before we reach a point of no return.

All coal mining families at today's service know that the first time in 25 years, utilities coal stockpiles have increased during the summer; absentee coal companies are cutting jobs and idling higher-cost mines to keep their stock holders happy in a period of slumping demand; recent U.S. Geological Survey estimates place "peak coal" production as early as 2020.

Even Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), who will speak at today's service, has noted: "The state's most productive coal seams likely will be exhausted in 20 years. And while coal will remain an important part of the economy, the state should emphasize green job development."

As a grandchild of a black-lung-afflicted coal miner who barely survived a mine explosion, I believe we honor our families' sacrifices in recognizing, not denying, the true cost of coal. Our grandfathers benefited from a transition to mechanization to improve mine safety. The time has come for a transition to clean-energy jobs.

A just transition, of course, means more than rhetoric about green jobs--it will require not only a shift in massive investments and sustainable economic development, but a change in our long-standing policies that have allowed coal country to be the sacrifice zone for the nation.

The mourning families today understand better than any American that coal is not cheap nor clean; coal has been killing us -- for over 200 years. Over 104,000 Americans have died in coal-mining accidents; three coal miners still die daily from black-lung disease. Millions of acres of forests and farmlands have been strip-mined into oblivion; pioneering communities have been plundered. Half of Americans live within an hour of a toxic coal ash dump.

A West Virginia University report noted the coal industry "costs the Appalachian region five times more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits."

The Physicians for Social Responsibility recently found that coal "contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases."

In 1776, Thomas Paine challenged our country to embrace the cause of independence over compromise. In a moment of crisis, he declared: "We have it in our power to make the world over again."

If President Obama is truly committed to ensuring the American dream for coal miners and their children, and all coalfield residents, then he should call on our nation to have a reckoning in the coalfields, and provide the resources to make our coalfields over again and become a vital part of the inevitable clean energy future.

As the great Appalachian poet James Still wrote:

They who are strong have claimed an earthly peace

Gathering their strength in this treasured hour

When the winds hush, the muted waters cease

And fog with misty wings has raised a tower

Of silence as a harbor for the stars;

When hills have cleft the sky with brooding peaks

Thrust in the purple bowl, raised solemn bars

Against all utterance, he who then speaks

Shall in this mighty breathlessness be heard.

They shall be heard, the weary and the spent

The broken at the wheel, the fledgling bird

Each grievous thought, each yearning here unspent

Shall have its reckoning when the hills confide.

They shall find strength where peace and time abide.