One candidate said she was going to put a lot of coal companies out of business. Another stood in Charleston, West Virginia, donned a hard hat, pantomimed shoveling and promised the industry’s roaring return.
The man in the hard hat got into office, and he tried for a while. He figured attempted subsidies and rolling back environmental regulations that protected people living in coal country would somehow end what he and countless others in the years before dubbed “the war on coal.” Turns out, it didn’t do the trick.
The other candidate? Well, if she had been elected, the coal industry would’ve fulfilled her statement on its own.
As Murray Energy, the country’s fourth-largest coal producer last year and the biggest in West Virginia, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the lesson is hammered home one more time. Indeed, a war on coal did take place, but it was waged by old-fashioned, capitalist competition. Natural gas was more abundant and cheaper. Renewable sources became more feasible and less costly, and power companies began shuttering their coal-fired plants.
Murray is the latest in a string of coal companies falling like dominoes. Company execs may consider themselves the victims of this energy war, but those who will suffer the most are the miners who did the actual work.
Murray employs 3,000 people in West Virginia who now face uncertain futures. The bankruptcy also puts retired miners’ contracted pensions and benefits in danger, as Murray will likely try to shed as many liabilities as it can.
Blackjewel and Cloud Peak, two other mining giants, filed for bankruptcy this year. Blackjewel employees in Kentucky had to literally block a train with their bodies until they were finally given back pay.
Hopefully, a similar scene will not play out in West Virginia, or anywhere else Murray operates. Congress can do its part by finally acting to shore up the pension and health care plans for members of the United Mine Workers of America. West Virginia can do its part by finally facing facts about the future of its economy. A real dialogue with a plan of action among business and industry leaders, research institutions and government agencies about what diversifying the state’s economy actually means is needed. Now.
West Virginia’s future can still be its own to plot, but not if the miners are shorted and the state doesn’t assess its own situation realistically.