There are a few reasons why West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton would spend 640 words, give or take, in an op-ed trying to distance his industry from the phrase “selective socialism,” which was used once in a recent Gazette-Mail story by reporter Mike Tony (two words out of a story made up of 1,327).
First, there’s the political connotation. “Socialism” with no context is a label conservatives like to throw at anyone who disagrees with them, although many on the far right have now gone straight to calling such folk communists.
That isn’t to say Hamilton as a person leans far right, but his business interests are certainly on the conservative side and he knows how that word is used. Having it aimed at the coal corporations and ownership groups he lobbies for, whether Tony actually did that or not, is like tossing a scorpion in his lap.
Hamilton also wants to convince people that’s not what is happening when his group asks the state government to help prop up the dying coal industry by investing in it. It’s socialism when other industries, investors or governments pick winners and losers, not when it’s the industry he represents that is passing the hat around.
This is an old conversation, but one that never seems to end. The coal industry has been declining for a long time. Mechanization depleted much of the workforce decades ago. It’s true that tighter environmental regulations hurt the industry, although only in West Virginia could prioritizing the health of the people and the environment be considered a radical, leftist plot.
Still, the biggest problem for coal in West Virginia over the past 20 years has been the depletion of the state’s coal seams and the emergence of natural gas, and now renewables, as cheaper, cleaner alternatives.
The energy companies that are coal’s biggest customers changed direction years ago. Hamilton, Gov. Jim Justice (a coal magnate) the Legislature and others have been trying to bend things in an unnatural direction for a long time. Most recently, it’s taken the form of allowing punishing rate increases passed along to the consumer so that subsidiaries of American Electric Power can keep coal-fired plants operating well after it’s financially feasible.
There’s also the continued bailouts of the Pleasants Power Station, which only serve to kick the closure of the facility back a year or two, and constant industry subsidies and tax breaks.
No one wants miners or power plant workers to lose their jobs. But that’s not what this is really about for the coal lobby or the industry’s profiteers in public office. It’s about wringing every last dollar out of a filthy rag.
Workers who stand to lose their jobs could get new ones, if the state would ever take reclamation and diversifying the economy seriously. But coal is still king, despite its sagging and wheezing on the throne.
Hamilton does make a point that newer sources of energy, like solar and wind, get government subsidies and tax credits (although not so much in West Virginia, where such policies have been fought tooth and nail). If that’s not socialism, then neither is the state investing in keeping coal-fired power plants running, he says.
But there’s a difference. These alternative sources of energy are on the rise. Governments are incentivizing companies to develop because, in the long run, it will make these energy sources more reliable, while pollution and power bills drop. In West Virginia, the plan is to keep what is now the most expensive form of energy production alive past its expiration date, while gouging customers to do it. That’s not much of a fair market choice.
The state is going in the wrong direction on this issue, but, honestly, if recent actions by the Public Service Commission, the governor and the Legislature are any indication, Hamilton has nothing to worry about. As always, it’s the people of West Virginia who are left holding the bag.