By Cecil E. Roberts
Mike Payton has been working as a coal miner in Marion County for 10 years. He got out of school, went to work, started a family, bought a house and began his climb up the ladder of economic security that has for generations been the way out of poverty for people in the coalfields.A member of the United Mine Workers of America, Mike shops at local stores, eats at local restaurants, takes his kids to local doctors and clinics. He and thousands more like him throughout America's coalfields have an immense impact on the economic and social fabrics of their communities.Indeed, without them, many of those communities would dry up and vanish.
That's starting to happen. Average coal employment in the United States dropped 17.1 percent over the last two years. West Virginia alone lost more than 2,500 coal jobs over that time. Kentucky lost another 6,000 and coal employment there has dropped to the lowest level since 1927. That means that nearly $1 billion in wages and benefits has been ripped out of the economies of the largely rural West Virginia and Kentucky coalfield communities in just two years.And that doesn't count the impact on those whose jobs depend on the coal industry, like service industry workers, health-care workers, restaurant workers, and more. Nor does it take into account the serious threats to the retirement checks and health-care payments that go to thousands of retirees in those areas.Downturns are common in the coal industry. But this one may never end because of a host of regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency that are slowly but surely putting a stranglehold on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of coal miners, utility workers, electrical workers, boilermakers, railroad workers and their families.Power plants that have already spent millions coming into compliance with current emissions standards are closing prematurely. Their owners cannot economically justify spending the millions more it will cost to comply with this new onslaught of regulations. That means jobs are lost, tax revenues are squeezed, public services are threatened, school budgets are slashed.Some see this as a cause for celebration. I do not. I see the faces of those who will suffer the indignities of unemployment. I hear the voices of those who have provided a good life for their families yet now wonder how long they can hold on to their house. I see the fear in the eyes of retirees who are suddenly threatened with the loss of hard-earned pensions and health care.The UMWA understands that global climate change needs to be addressed, and that means addressing emissions of greenhouse gases. But the current path the administration and some of its supporters in the environmental community are taking to do that is irrational, insensitive and condescending.They pay no more than lip service to the people whose jobs they threaten. They provide no concrete solutions to meeting the economic needs of Appalachian communities suddenly made unstable, nor to meeting the skyrocketing domestic and worldwide demand for energy.No, what Mike Payton, his co-workers and their families hear is the glee coming from groups who stop the construction of new-generation coal-fired power plants. They feel the jolt when ever-more-strict regulations are put in place that offer no cushion for the suddenly jobless. They hear the glib phrases like "just transition" for displaced workers and know that there has never been any such thing in the history of this country. "Just transition" turns out to mean "just more unemployment."It simply makes no sense from an energy and national security perspective to shut down a quarter of America's energy supply and 90 percent of our nation's proven fossil fuel reserves. The United States has more energy in our coal reserves than Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait combined have in oil. But some are willing to turn their backs on all of it.Let's get real: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, America could stop burning coal entirely tomorrow and it would cause global greenhouse gas emissions to drop by about 3 percent. It won't take long for China, India and dozens of other emerging economies to fill that gap, for they have no restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions, and they will soon have even more of our jobs because of their ability to produce cheaper energy.Those in this country who celebrate closures of coal-fired power plants in America are joined by those in the developing world who see the economic benefits and jobs that will accrue to them.
But not all of America is not celebrating. Ratepayers are concerned about long-term energy reliability at a reasonable cost. Business and labor are concerned about keeping America's best jobs here.We must recognize that other nations are not going to stop burning coal to build their economies just because we wag our finger at them and say they should, and that includes a growing list of developed nations like Germany and Poland. The answer to building a future our electronically wired descendants can live happily in is to develop and implement technology that allows the world to continue to use coal to generate electricity in a more environmentally friendly way.We are on that path to doing that through carbon capture and storage technology, but significant hurdles remain that will require significant government resources to be invested. It's going to require the kind of technological and engineering innovations - and corresponding resources - it took to put a man on the moon. As important as that effort was, in this challenge, the stakes are much higher.Cecil E. Roberts is international president of the United Mine Workers of America.