Earlier this week at the National Press Club, in Washington D.C., West Virginian Cecil Roberts, president of the international United Mine Workers union, offered up a bleak assessment of the coal industry.
“First of all, coal’s not back. Nobody saved the coal industry,” he said. “Now, that’s a harsh fact, and it’s a harsh reality.”
Coal executives and representatives from the Coal Owners Association, which lobbies on behalf of those executives, would undoubtedly present a different spin. Coal was maimed by cruel environmental regulations, they would likely claim. The Trump administration is saving coal, and coal keeps the lights on.
Those who do the work in the mines and those who profit from that labor have always been at odds. West Virginians know better than most that it’s a real and, in the past, sometimes very literal, life-or-death fight to obtain fairness for workers against the financial goals of the industry.
In this particular case, though, it is a matter of “harsh reality,” as Roberts put it. Coal-fired power plants are on their way out. The energy companies have made their decisions, looking more to natural gas and renewable energy sources as the path forward. The government can bail out a plant here or there, but coal seams in West Virginia are depleted and natural gas, which the state has in abundance, is a less-expensive option.
The coal industry has had some surges here and there recently, especially as it pertains to metallurgical coal used in steel manufacturing. But even that has now dipped, as many industry analysts predicted.
West Virginia was seeing a surplus in revenue, but now has seen a multi-million dollar dip for three months straight as coal severance taxes have fallen because of decrease in production, coupled with the Legislature’s recent decision to cut the tax rates as a financial incentive to coal executives.
Corporate tax cuts do very little to help the miners themselves. Roberts seems to still see a path forward for mine workers, as coal continues to be a commodity in demand in global markets. For miners in West Virginia and across the rest of the United States, though, it’s going to be an uphill slog to keep jobs and ensure workers are safe and fairly compensated.
The situation in Kentucky, where miners are blocking a railroad to get back pay after their employer, Blackjewel LLC, filed for bankruptcy, is a troubling example of where this could all be headed within a decade.
There’s also the ever-present issue of climate change, and coal will lose out when the United States finally decides to get serious about the billion-dollar crisis. It’s true that plenty of other industrialized nations are still burning coal at a high volume, but that doesn’t mean nothing will happen in America to address the issue. The United States has to control what it can control before looking to blame other nations for their contribution to the problem.
Unfortunately, that leaves the miners — often exploited for political purposes, as Roberts said — in an ever-diminishing profession, wondering how long they can hold onto one of the few decent-paying, labor-intensive jobs available in West Virginia.