Coal Tattoo

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Amid all the other reactions to the Obama administration’s announced plans for dealing with mountaintop removal, I am sitting here on a Friday afternoon, wondering if they — and the rest of us — buried the lead.

There it is, at the bottom of their list of proposals:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

What? Who? When? How?

We should all want to know the answers to those questions … our elected officials — from Sen. Byrd to Gov. Manchin and down to county commissioners and mayors — should all be demanding to know.

President Obama campaigned at least in part on promises that he would “green the economy” with lots of good, new jobs based on alternative energy industries. And whether anyone likes it or not, efforts to deal with global warming — another Obama priority — are going to impact coalfield communities. Our leaders would be right to ask what is going to be done to give our people jobs in this new economy.

We in the media should be asking, too. But instead, we get stories like this one from Tim Huber over at The Associated Press, which buys into Manchin’s reaction that the Obama plan for more closely regulating mountaintop removal is somehow going to stop construction of wind- or solar-energy facilities on blown up and flattened mountaintops.

No one from the Manchin administration has made a persuasive argument that the governor’s new post-mining land use law is actually going to encourage real development of mountaintop removal sites.  They haven’t explained why — given all of the sites that have already been flattened and not developed — West Virginia (or anywhere else in Appalachi, for that matter)  needs to flatten more mountains. If Gov. Manchin has some prospects for a wind energy production facility or a factory to build wind turbine components, my guess is that Mike Whitt down at the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority could give him a couple of sits to choose from. And, of course, Manchin’s big energy bill, also passed by legislators this year, bends over so far to make sure to include coal that it will probably do very little to actually encourage alternative energy production to grow in our state.

The only example of any sort of development that Manchin says the Obama EPA’s review of mountaintop removal permits is hampering? Check it out, from Huber’s story:

“There’s no plateaus, there’s nothing flat, there’s nothing to build on,” Manchin said Friday, adding that creating buildable land is essential to adding renewable energy sources such as crops for making ethanol. “We need some agricultural land, we need wind farms, we need solar.

“We can start developing things from that and we can be part of this new greening of America.” Persuading the Obama administration, however, figures to be tough. So far, efforts have failed to win approval from federal agencies for a surface mine that would include construction of 5 miles of rough roadbed.

Huh?

I’ve written before about Green Jobs for the Coalfields, but so far the only one of Obama’s proposals that seemed like it might help coalfield communities — spending more money to clean up abandoned coal mines —has been abandoned.

But it’s probably little wonder that the Obama administration doesn’t seem that interested in places like Southern West Virginia. And I don’t think it’s because he thinks we’re a bunch of racists who didn’t and won’t ever vote for him.

Instead, consider what kind of talk you hear from West Virginia political leaders about greening the economy.   Even Congressman Nick Rahall — who uses political power to protect wilderness and, on most national conservation issues is among the most green members of the House — disses green jobs, as if the very idea were some kind of fantasy.

And, of course, the coal industry’s lobbyists are quick to try to squelch any talk of green jobs or greener sources of energy.

Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, posted a comment on Coal Tattoo this week that said:

For the benefit of your readers and in the interest of complete transparency it should be noted that the agency documents also reference stimulating “green jobs.”

According to report issued earlier this year by the Apollo Alliance, jobs in wind and solar pay between $21,500 and $44,000 per year on average. Coal miners in W.Va. earn on average $66,000/year, excluding overtime and benefits.

On one level, Watzman is right.  Faced with an industry restructuring that could cost mining jobs, coal miners (and their union — what few union miners are left  though the UMWA represents just 8 percent of Appalachian surface mine worker (1,514 union miners versus 16,837 non-union, according to the Department of Energy), the union rightly wants a voice in the debate)  want to know how they’re going to support their families to the level they’ve become accustomed to — will green jobs be good jobs?

That’s just the question the report Watzman cited sought to answer. It’s called “High Road or Low Road? Job Quality In the New Green Economy,” and it was put together by the group Good Jobs First, which has done some great work on the issue of wasted  subsidies by government economic development programs.

I took at look at the report, commissioned by a coalition of labor and environmental groups, and indeed it is not all good news about green jobs:

Our review of working conditions in three core sectors of the emerging green economy — wind and solar component manufacturing; green construction; and recycling — suggests one basic conclusion: The fact that an employer is engaged in a business that benefits the environment does not necessarily mean that the employees of that enterprise are going to be treated well. While some green companies are model employers, others pay their workers too little and offer them inadequate benefits. Purportedly green firms have in some cases resorted to union-busting and the exploitation of undocumented immigrants. In short, the green economy is not always a humane economy.

But, the report offers some recommendations to deal with these problems. Among them:

Pass the Employee Free Choice Act, to give workers “their best hope of a fair wage and a voice on the job.”

Attach “self-sufficiency wage requirements” to government economic development subsidies.

Apply wage standards to government contractors, and strengthen prevailing wage requirements.

— Add labor criteria to the LEED green building standards, so that environmentally friendly construction is also worker friendly.

Greg LeRoy, Good Jobs First executive director, said:

This use of taxpayer money provides an opportunity to raise wages and other working conditions. Many states and localities already apply job quality standards to companies receiving job subsidies or public contracts. In the report we urge wider and more aggressive use of such standards by federal as well as state and local agencies.

I’ll be waiting for the National Mining Association — which cited this report to criticize green jobs — to issue a statement in support of these kind of reforms. Wouldn’t measures that force other energy industries to provide pay comparable to coal mining help keep coal competitive?