Coal Tattoo

Coal and Copenhagen: A view from the UMWA


Danish riot police guard a McDonald’s restaurant as demonstrators pass by in Copenhagen Saturday Dec. 12, 2009. The largest and most important U.N. climate change conference is underway in Copenhagen, aiming to secure an agreement on how to protect the world from calamitous global warming. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

International climate talks in Copenhagen have apparently stalled today, as poor nations threatened to walk out on the negotiations, saying that richer nations aren’t doing enough to cut their greenhouse emissions. There’s more on that from the BBC, the Guardian, and Reuters. And the AP has another great story out of Copenhagen, about that key number: 350 ppm.

Meanwhile, one voice we’re not hearing a lot of in the news coverage of Copenhagen is that of workers in industries that are facing serious changes if the world is to deal with the global warming problem. One group that’s in Copenhagen taking part in the talks, and trying to see that worker impacts are considered is the United Mine Workers of America union. As Coal Tattoo has repeatedly pointed out, the UMWA is not taking the position that global warming isn’t real — like others in the coal industry insist on doing — but is seeking a seat at the table to try to keep its industry viable in a carbon-constrained world.

trisko.jpgOver the weekend, I did a quick e-mail interview with my buddy Gene Trisko, the UMWA’s representative at the Copenhagen talks … I’m just going to give you all my questions and Gene’s answers …

Question:  What is at stake in Copenhagen for the coal industry in Appalachia?

Trisko: The Copenhagen process does not itself pose any new or additional threats to coal mining in Appalachia, beyond those posed by pending domestic climate legislation and EPA regulatory initiatives under the Clean Air Act and other statutes (e.g., potentially treating coal ash as toxic waste, requiring multiple new Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards for mercury and other hazardous air pollutants by 2014, new ozone and particulate matter standards, etc.)  We are currently evaluating the potential risks to coal that these new regulatory initiatives may create.

The Obama targets for Copenhagen are the same as those in the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House last June, starting with a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and ending with an 83% cut by 2050.  The UMWA does not support the 17% 2020 target because CCS technologies will not be widely deployed on a commercial basis at that time.  At most, there will be 5-10 demonstration plants online at that time. 

Reducing 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 is the equivalent of removing all the cars from the road.  Both DOE and EPA analyses show that coal use would be reduced significantly by 2020 due to fuel-switching. We need more flexibility in the timing of implementation, and certainty in the supply of adequate financial incentives to ensure that coal is not displaced by natural gas, raising gas prices for all consumers and energy-intensive industries. 

There is real uncertainty whether there will be an agreement in Copenhagen, due to the insistence by some countries on keeping the Kyoto Protocol in force. The US has stated that it will not join in an amended Kyoto Protocol, and wants a new agreement covering all nations. If there is no agreement by next Saturday, the talks may be adjourned for six months or so. 

The US is hoping to obtain a “politically binding” agreement on emission reductions by industrial and developing nations, to be followed by a more detailed agreement next year.  It is not clear whether the Obama Administration could, in effect, bypass the need for Senate ratification of such an international agreement.  Count on careful Senate scrutiny of any “politically binding” agreement reached here.


 Workers load coal into a truck outside a coal mine in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Question: How important are the moves that China and India have made toward agreeing to emissions cuts? What is your view of the rich-poor developed-developing nation debate and demands that the developed world help developing nations financially?

Trisko: China and India have each promised to reduce the future rate of growth of their emissions, but not to any absolute emission reductions. Their plans are similar to the Bush Administration’s “CO2 efficiency” targets of 2002, which did not require any real emission reductions in the US.

There is major concern about whether China and India will be willing to include these promised reductions in a Copenhagen agreement. The US wants them to be included. In all events, China and India insist that their promises are not legally enforceable by the UN.

Obtaining a definite schedule for long-term commitments by major developing nations is the only way that the world can reach targets such as limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.  Such an outcome is highly unlikely here.  Developing countries are insisting that their pledge to make “measurable, reportable and verifiable reductions” is tied totally to technology transfer and financial resources from industrial nations.  They argue that we caused the problem, and that we have the responsibility to fix it.  DOE projects that emissions from developing nations, which already exceed those from industrial countries, will grow seven times faster than ours over the coming decades.

Question: Is there much talk in Copenhagen about mitigation options, specifically [Carbon Capture and Sequestration] and the funding and tech transfer of it?

Trisko:  CCS has been excluded from the Clean Development Mechanism – the Kyoto program that rewards clean energy investments in developing nations. This needs to be fixed. China and other major coal users need incentives to deploy CCS, and the US and other industrial nations need emission offsets that can be created by CCS developments in China and other developing nations.  We are addressing this issue at a side event meeting today organized by international labor groups.

CCS has been excluded from CDM due to opposition from Brazil and other nations that want to maximize their potential revenues from forest offset credits. This will limit the potential deployment of CCS in developing nations, unless a decision is made to include CCS within the types of technologies that qualify for CDM marketable credits.

Question: Are there other voices like yours representing workers who would be impacted, and what are they saying?

Trisko: There are several other US labor unions here who share our views, but I’m reluctant to characterize their positions since they speak through their own representatives.  Suffice to say that the UMWA has friends in Copenhagen. Along with other US unions, we also have been communicating our views in private meetings with high-level officials of the Obama Administration.

Question: Has the tone of talks changed because of President Obama’s effort to make America more open to an international agreement?

Trisko: Certainly the US is a more welcome participant in the UN climate process due to President Obama’s positions on the issue. Some argue, however, that his 17% pledge for 2020 reductions is too weak, translating to just a 4% reduction from 1990 levels.  The European Union is pledging a 20% reduction below 1990, and Japan has more aggressive targets.  Crunch time will come later this week when Obama addresses the conference, and parties struggle to reach agreement on reduction targets for industrial nations and a statement of “shared vision” for long-term actions by all countries.

Attendance at the meetings this week is being rationed by special tickets, because 37,000 people registered to attend at a conference center that holds 15,000 maximum based on fire codes.  The UMWA was fortunate to have its own UN registration, so we are not limited like some large groups who registered hundreds of participants.  They are getting rationed down to 33% to 50% attendance. So there will be a lot of folks with time on their hands and nowhere to go.  The weather, by the way, is fairly consistent. It is 40 degrees and it rains a lot.

What else should West Virginians know that I didn’t ask about?

Trisko:  The UMWA has attended every major UN climate session since the Rio Treaty in 2001, recognizing its importance for coal miners and for domestic energy policies. We have consistently argued for fair treatment for the US and its workers, and shared global responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The shared global responsibility part has been the most difficult, and looks to remain so.