Coal Tattoo

Yes, you read that headline right … The United Steelworkers union has come out with a strong statement describing President Obama as the nation’s “pro-coal” president. It came in the form of this op-ed commentary published late last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the byline of Steelworkers President Leo Gerard (above):

Coal miners wake up before the sun rises, travel miles into the darkness of mountains and with only a lamp on their helmets help power our country. They have a dangerous job, and they deserve a president who fights for them.

Frankly, the piece is a little all over the place, jumping back and forth between discussions of environmental regulations and worker safety and health issues. For example:

Mr. Obama is committed to protecting clean air and clean water for our families while also helping the coal industry. That is why he promotes clean-coal technologies to ensure that the industry remains competitive.

The president wants mine workers who clock in each day to stay safe on the job. His administration has launched an inspection program that targets mines with patterns of violations, and it’s paid off. Between 2010 and February 2012, the injury rate at inspected mines dropped by 18 percent. Last year saw the second-lowest number of mine worker fatalities since such statistics have been recorded.

Generally, one point of the commentary argues that President Obama has tried to encourage “clean coal” — I suppose meaning coal that controls power plant greenhouse emissions — while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has had hash words for coal pollution:

Of course, it’s not enough to produce good jobs today. We need to invest in the long-term security of the coal industry so that mine workers don’t have to wonder whether they will have a job to support their families next year, or the year after that.

With countries like China and Germany competing with us to lead the global clean-energy economy, Mr. Obama is making the most significant investments in clean coal of any president in history. His administration is partnering with businesses and universities on clean-coal projects in more than a dozen states and plans to rapidly deploy new technology.

The goal is to have five to 10 commercial-scale, low-carbon-power-plant demonstration projects online by 2016 and to have the technology become widespread within a decade. The manufacturing of clean-coal technologies is already supporting supply chain jobs in the United States. Facilities are making investments and hiring workers to manufacture components for clean-coal projects and to supply electricity to utilities.

Mr. Obama has been working to build a clean future for coal, but Mitt Romney abandoned the interests of coal miners and utility workers as governor of Massachusetts by attacking their “dirty power plants,” refusing to protect their jobs and even declaring that a Massachusetts coal plant “kills people.” He claimed to enforce strict regulations on coal-fired plants — in his words, “without compromise.”

Of course, that’s quite a bit of cherry-picking going on there in the quotations and in the discussion of policy. President Obama has certainly made his share of negative remarks about the coal industry (see here,  and here). While he’s proposed some advances in dealing with coal-fired power plant emissions, he also didn’t push hard enough for what is really needed to push carbon capture and storage forward: Strong federal legislation that limits greenhouse emissions and puts a price on carbon.

For those who don’t know, the Steelworkers union does represent miners, mostly in the metal/nonmetal sector, but also some in the Canadian coal industry (about 3,000 of them). While it’s perhaps not the most artful effort, the piece does highlight some parts of President Obama’s record that, oddly, you don’t really hear the United Mine Workers union talk much about.

For example:
Let’s also not forget that Mr. Obama’s health care law is a Godsend to longtime miners with black lung disease who no longer have to prove a direct cause to help their families get the benefits they deserve.
Mr. Romney also would re-institute policies that are harmful to labor and that would weaken federal protection of the right to collectively bargain.
The commentary reminds us that President Obama came to West Virginia after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, to honor those who were killed and promise reforms aimed at preventing such disasters in the future:

Here’s what the president said as the nation mourned the loss of 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia two years ago: “Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a convention center; that lights up our church, or our home, our school, our office; the energy that powers our country; the energy that powers the world.”

(Not for nothing, but you have to wonder if the UMWA thinks that  a Mitt Romney administration would reappoint U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin or allow Goodwin’s top assistant, Steve Ruby, to continue trying to work his way up the corporate ladder at Massey to bring criminal charges for what the union called “industrial homicide.”)

The UMWA’s political posturing these days appears to be mostly reactive, as union President Cecil Roberts tries to keep up with the industry’s “war on coal” rhetoric criticizing President Obama and avoid saying anything that non-union companies might use as “bulletin board material” in any organizing drives. For the record, I checked in with the UMWA — and they had no official comment on the Steelworkers union’s commentary …