These are difficult times for coal miners in Southern West Virginia and for those whose lives are linked to them. Layoffs and mine closings have become almost routine events in the face of competition as well as changes in regulation. This is a time when coal communities need and deserve serious leadership from the state’s elected officials.
What they’ve gotten instead is what I like to call a ruling class hissy fit, an art that state leaders have mastered over the last few years. It is basically an all-hands-on-deck command performance where everyone who’s anyone, including those who know better, proceeds to blame all the ills of the state on the president of the United States and his “war on coal.”
The assumption seems to be that everything was peachy here until 2009 and would be again with if the White House had a different occupant and/or the EPA went away.
And that narrative, despite the steady disappearance of coal jobs since the 1950s, seems to be working. The task is probably made just a little easier by the fact that the occupant of that office is a black man with a strange name. It doesn’t take much to subtly invoke the demons that dwell below the surface of our “post-racial” society.
The scene, which has become fairly ritualized, reminds me of George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which a regular feature of life in an authoritarian society was the “two minutes hate.” During that time, images of enemies of the state were flashed on TV screens while everyone in the audience was obliged to scream their hatred of the despised villains.
In the words of Orwell’s narrator Winston Smith, “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”
State Senate President Jeff Kessler summed it up pretty well in a Washington Post article: “As a state, we have dealt with [the coal downturn] more from a state of denial, that it’s all caused by Obama and EPA, and if we just scream a little harder it will go back to where it was ... And I’m just not sure that is going to happen.”
The thing is, while hissy fits and two minute hates might promote social bonding and make people feel a little bit better for a little while, they don’t really do much to address the situation at hand or the facts we’re eventually going to have to face.
One such fact is that while coal has been and is likely to continue to be a major part of our economy, the post-World War II days when it employed over 120,000 miners are long gone long and aren’t coming back. Another is that coal’s problems wouldn’t go away even if Obama and the EPA did. Even if we grant that new regulations on emissions complicate coal’s future, they aren’t the biggest factors.
Central Appalachian coal faces competition from cheaper Western and imported coal and cheaper and abundant natural gas. The free market, which many idolize, is doing more to impact coal than any politician or agency or environmental group.
There is currently a glut of coal on the world market, even as demand for the product is declining in places like China, which is expected to close 2,000 of its own mines by 2015. According to one of many business analysts cited in a recent Bloomberg story in the Daily Mail, markets are “awash with coal in a time of soft demand.” To add insult to injury, some of the coal U.S. energy suppliers are buying is being imported from places like Colombia. Because of competition for rail service, shipping coal from there can be cheaper than rolling it to domestic sources on trains.
Sorry, but I don’t think you can pin all that on the black guy. Or, as Gazette political columnist Phil Kabler recently noted, “I think we can agree that decline in demand for coal in China has nothing to do with tough environmental regulations.”
And while some folks here believe that science can and should be denied on the basis of where their money comes from, climate change is going to get harder and harder to ignore. And it could make some of the problems we’re worried about now look pretty small.
At some point, we need to move beyond the hissy fit and two minute hate. One step forward would be having some serious conversations about West Virginia’s economic future. Fortunately, that is starting to happen through efforts like What’s Next, West Virginia?, which is supported by many groups that are holding conversations all over the state about how we can strengthen our local economy.
We also need political leaders who will advocate for the kinds of policies and transitional assistance to help coal miners and communities get through this rough patch. As my friend Ted Boettner put it in a recent Gazette article, we need something like a “GI bill for displaced coal miners.”
Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy argued recently that there is plenty of precedence for the federal government to provide such assistance for workers and communities undergoing major hardships and economic changes. The Appalachian Regional Commission itself was created in the early 1960s to promote development within the region. Other transitional programs include:
n The Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which since 1962 has provided services and supports to workers impacted by U.S. trade policies.
n The Job Training Partnership Act Title III, also established in 1962, was intended to help workers impacted by automation.
n The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which was intended to help communities impacted by the close of military bases.
n The Clean Air Employment Transition Assistance program, passed in 1990, was established to provide training and assistance to workers affected by the Clean Air Act.
n The Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 was intended to help workers displaced by the failure of rail systems in the northwest and Midwest.
n The Redwood Employee Protection Plan and Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative aimed to assist workers in the declining timber industry of the Pacific Northwest.
n The U.S. Community Adjustment and Investment Program grew out of the NAFTA trade agreement and was intended to help communities and workers by it.
It’s one thing to posture, pose and pretend to care about coal miners and their families. It’s something else to push for the policies they need and deserve. So far, alas, that hasn’t been happening.
Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.
At a news conference in June, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin talks about the EPA’s proposed legislation in relation to the coal industry. With the governor is (from left) Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Charles Patton, president and CEO of Appalachian Power.