Bringing Coal Country into the Clean Era

April 20, 2021

New York Times:

The country’s largest mine workers union signaled on Monday that it would accept a transition away from fossil fuels in exchange for new jobs in renewable energy, spending on technology to make coal cleaner and financial aid for miners who lose their jobs.

“There needs to be a tremendous investment here,” Cecil E. Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in an interview. “We always end up dealing with climate change, closing down coal mines. We never get to the second piece of it.”

The mine workers’ plan, which Mr. Roberts is presenting at an event with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, calls for the creation of new jobs in Appalachia through tax credits that would subsidize the making of solar panel and wind turbine components, and by funding the reclamation of abandoned mines that pose a risk to public health.

The mine workers are also calling for spending on research on carbon capture and storage technology, which would allow coal-fired plants to store carbon dioxide underground rather than release it into the atmosphere, and for policies that allow coal plants to remain open if they commit to installing the technology.

The union wants the federal government to support miners who lose their jobs through retraining and by replacing their wages, health insurance and pensions.

Many of these proposals appear in President Biden’s $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, including funding for research into carbon capture, which critics deride as prohibitively expensive, and money for reclaiming mines.

“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” stated a document that the mine workers union released on Monday, titled “Preserving Coal Country.” It notes that employment in the coal industry had dropped to about 44,000 as of last December, down from 92,000 at the end of 2011.

Mr. Roberts said the union would resist any climate legislation that did not help ensure a livelihood for its members.

Long, worthwhile, but daunting analysis in Politico:

Fairness is where workers, especially those involved in organized labor, find fault with Democrats’ green economic makeover.

Some clean-energy companies lack the most basic of labor protections. Many categorize their workforce as contractors, denying them full benefits. Very few wind and solar companies have unions, and many opposed unionization efforts. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has taken a particularly strong stance against unions, with the National Labor Relations Board demanding he remove a tweet that allegedly threatened organizers. (Tesla appealed the ruling in March.) And making electric vehicles requires fewer parts than internal combustion engine-powered cars, translating to fewer workers.

Still, labor leaders insist that much of the administration’s and Democrats’ plans amount to tinkering around the edges of the real problem. They pointed to efforts to impose prevailing wage requirements to ensure fair pay on federal clean-energy projects, to boost training programs, to diversify local economies. But truly transforming the landscape and making clean energy work for labor, union leaders said, would require changing federal labor laws to make it easier to organize — an effort that would be highly unlikely to prevail in the 50-50 Senate without Republican support. Organizers contend that without passing legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, the U.S. clean energy manufacturing renaissance Biden envisions would be free to engage in a race to the bottom for wages and benefits.

“The thing everybody understands now is unless everybody has a chance to organize, these aren’t the same jobs,” said an organized labor official who asked for anonymity to discuss conversations with the administration.

But clean-energy firms aren’t the same as the fossil-fuel factories of the past: They don’t require the same labor inputs, and the best of them — those that manufacture clean-energy equipment — face intense overseas pressure,according to lawmakers and labor leaders. Putting political energy behind passing broader labor reforms might win Democrats more friends in coal country. But it’s not clear the party is ready to take on that battle in a meaningful way.

Instead, Democrats are exploring creative ways to prod employers to boost wages through tax credits and federal spending programs. But those maneuvers don’t fundamentally enable workers to negotiate for better working conditions, pay and benefits, said Jason Walsh, executive director of the Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups.

“Then we’re not going to really be able to change much,” Walsh said, adding, “Don’t make promises. President Biden has to be straight with folks.”

Walsh would know. He led Obama’s Power-Plus effort to ease the transition of coal communities, which focused mostly on retraining and economic development grants. The funding was a pittance compared to what Biden has already laid out, but it failed to win the hearts and minds of entire regions and sectors that are already skeptical of politicians — especially ones with a “D” next to their name. Walsh recalled traveling to coal communities where he never saw an Obama bumper sticker to have earnest conversations about their futures. There was often agreement on the need for more diverse economies, but little else. 

In the meantime, piercing the information and trust barriers that divide Red and Blue America has grown more daunting. Democrats will have to figure out how to sell their idea of the future with those challenges in mind — if only they could agree on what their plan is in the first place.

“The only thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s a conversation we need to have,” said Casten, the Illinois Democrat. “Because I don’t know how it gets resolved.”

3 Responses to “Bringing Coal Country into the Clean Era”

  1. mboli Says:

    What killed the coal jobs was the West. One worker-hour in Wyoming produces as much coal as a whole day in West Virginia. And the western coal is usually low-sulfur.
    Coal employment peaked in the middle of the 20th century, it was down by roughly 80% by a little after 2000 (depending on which statistics you look at).

    People complaining about losing coal jobs in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are complaining about the last few percent. Setting the baseline in 2011 is truly deceptive.

    I think it is reasonable to find ways to put people to work in new economic sectors as coal is phased out. But blaming green energy for the loss of coal jobs is fundamentally wrong. The bulk of those jobs were lost long before.


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