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Bobby Stevens’s backup plan encountered an obstacle a few months ago. In March the coronavirus pandemic closed the Kentucky government building where he was set to take his commercial driver’s license test, which he started studying for after he got dismissed by his second coal company in a year, where he’d started working after the first one went bankrupt.

The bankruptcy of coal giant Blackjewel LLC, which terminated Stevens and about 1,700 other workers in four states, made international news last summer when some of them blocked railroad tracks in Harlan County, Ky., over unpaid wages. It didn’t take long for Stevens’s next employer, Perry County Coal LLC, to start making its own cuts. “I guess we’re going to be like a dying breed,” says Stevens. The son of a coal worker, he got his first mining job when he was 18 years old. Now, at 30, he’s leaving the industry.

Mining has always been physically risky, and right now the job is more insecure than ever. The industry is collapsing. Last year, U.S. coal consumption declined by 13% from the previous year, plunging at the fastest rate in 65 years. Wind and solar are becoming cheap and widespread, boosting hopes for a healthier, lower-emissions future—and fueling a slew of bankruptcies. For the first time on record, the world’s coal-fired power capacity decreased in the first half of this year, as plant closures outpaced the activation of new ones.

(Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has committed $500 million to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the U.S. by 2030.)

For years, economists have said that coal’s cost to the environment more than cancels out its benefit to the economy (a 2011 study in the American Economic Review found coal creates more than twice as much damage as value). But with little government action to protect the workers, the industry’s decline has left them in the lurch.

While many miners may see the end of coal coming, the axed Blackjewel workers had to grapple with an uncertain future more abruptly than most because of the sudden closure of their workplace. Some who were working in Harlan County have left in hopes of staying in the coal business. Others are giving up on coal and holding on to Harlan—for now. The Blackjewel bankruptcy, which united the miners in protest, has now dispersed them.

“It was a scary thing to think about starting over,” says former Blackjewel employee Collin Cornette, who’s been studying to become a machinist, “because for so many years I was defined as a miner. That’s who I was.”

Stevens passed his driving test after the local office reopened in May. But with in-state job openings still scarce, he’s awaiting word on whether the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will grant a waiver letting him work despite an eye issue from his childhood. He was able to take his driving course for free thanks to a program run by a local government-funded nonprofit.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to spend $2 trillion leading a “clean energy revolution” that would include “an unprecedented investment” to help coal communities diversify their economies as the industry fades, with a new task force established to assist them in leveraging a mix of public and private money to create quality jobs. The Green New Deal framework popularized by activists and lawmakers such as New York’s Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which Biden hasn’t fully embraced, makes some more specific commitments, including “wage and benefit parity” for former miners.

Recently, Congress has been moving in the opposite direction, with the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refusing to extend the $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits approved earlier this year to address the surge in pandemic layoffs.

But some in Kentucky see a need for drastic steps. “Unless there’s some radical restructuring of the global economy, U.S. economy, and particularly our economy here,” the region’s future “doesn’t look very promising,” says Roy Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

“If they would just bring something to replace coal,” Stevens says, “everybody wouldn’t be fighting about coal.”