Coal Tattoo

Before tomorrow: Election Day in coal country

Across West Virginia, the polls have opened. Election Day 2012 has begun.  The endless news articles, television ads and public opinion surveys are over.

Now we vote.

In our nation’s coalfields, it’s time for miners, their families and their neighbors to decide if there really is a “war on coal” and if electing Republican Mitt Romney to replace President Obama will give them a better shot at earning a good living and coming home safely at the end of every shift. The election’s outcome will play some role in deciding if we do anything about the climate crisis, about coal’s continued death toll from air pollution, and about the growing concerns that living near mountaintop removal mining puts residents at a greater risk of serious health problems, including birth defects and cancer.

But as we tried to explain in a story in the print edition of Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, it is terribly unlikely that the outcome of today’s presidential election — or races for governor, congress and statehouse positions — is going to easily solve the many challenges facing the coalfields of Appalachia:

With the election just days away, some coal company officials and their political supporters continue to suggest the solution to the industry’s problems is a fairly easy one: Defeat President Obama on Tuesday, and coal’s troubles are over.

But a variety of experts, along with some of mining’s biggest advocates, say that challenges facing the Appalachian coal industry are much broader and complicated than one election can solve.

By now, the issues facing the industry are a well-known list: Competition from cheap natural gas and other coal basins, the mining out of the best and easiest-to-reach reserves, and added pressures from the nation’s increased efforts to clean up pollution and, eventually, fight global warming.

“Thinking that all of these things will simply go away if Gov. Romney wins is delusional and does a disservice to the industry and those who work in it,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.

We’ve outlined some of the more significant challenges many times before (see here, here, here, here and here), but it’s worth repeating them:

– There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the coal industry’s impacts on environment and public health. There’s the clear science showing mountaintop removal’s pervasive and irreversible impacts on the region’s environment. There’s the growing evidence linking mountaintop removal to serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. And there’s the overwhelming evidence tying the burning of coal to a variety of other serious health problems and premature deaths.

– While coal provides good-paying jobs to a fortunate, but ever-declining few in Appalachia, the last decade has seen the return of coal mining disasters at Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. And far, far more miners die — 10,000 in a recent decade — from black lung, a deadly disease that’s on the rise again in our region.

– Coal is a major contributor to global warming pollution, a matter that most scientists consider a grave threat to humanity.  The only way to keep using coal and combat climate change at the same time is to deploy carbon capture and storage technology broadly on power plants around the world.  Experts agree that won’t happen unless there are binding emissions reductions — something the Obama administration has proposed for new power plants in a rule that’s the latest step by EPA to prompt ridiculous rhetoric from folks in the industry.

– In Central Appalachian — meaning Southern West Virginia — coal production is in the midst of a serious decline that’s likely to see output cut in half by the end of this decade.  This trend will hit the region hard, but just try to get Sen. Manchin or Gov. Tomblin on the record about it or about their plans for seeing the state and its residents safely through this turmoil. As has been well documented, this trend has little to do with government regulations, but you won’t hear that from our political leaders.

The reality is that, for all of the talk about coal during this year’s campaigns, these crucial issues haven’t gotten that much attention. Gov. Tomblin, for example, recently dismissed outright the forecasts that Southern West Virginia coal production isn’t likely to rebound, no matter who is in the White House or who is running EPA. And even Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield said on Friday that a Romney administration is likely to be less help to Central Appalachian coal producers than the campaign rhetoric would have hard-working miners believe.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

And while political leaders are focusing all their attention only on fighting the Obama “war on coal”, the Appalachian mining industry continues to shed jobs for reasons that have far more to do with declining quality reserves, competition from other coal basins, and the cheap price of natural gas than with EPA regulations.

The latest U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration figures that are just out show, for example, a net reduction of nearly 900 more coal jobs in West Virginia between the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2012, on top of the decline already reported the previous quarter. Matt Wasson, who follows mine employment data for the group Appalachian Voices, noted in an e-mail last evening:

A drop in coal mine employment is not surprising, however, given that demand for coal by U.S. utilities has dropped by 17 percent compared to last year as a result of competition from cheap natural gas. In fact, given the historically low demand for coal, it’s surprising that employment has held up as well as it has. EIA projects that coal consumption this year will be the lowest it’s been in 20 years.

Still, Matt added:

 I don’t want to downplay the significance of these job losses to  communities in Appalachia, which are already suffering economically, but it’s also important to put these numbers in perspective. For instance, despite these recent job losses, employment is still up a lot since before the start of the recession. Since the 4th quarter of 2007, coal mining jobs have increased  by 9% across the country, by 10% in West Virginia and by well over 20% in Virginia and Ohio.

UPDATED: We’ve posted this story on the Gazette website summarizing the new MSHA coal jobs numbers.

In working on that Sunday story, I asked a variety of folks for their thoughts on where Appalachian coal communities will be after today’s votes are counted, and I wanted to pass on a longer statement from Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, that’s worth reading in full:

For more than 100 years West Virginia has suffered from the booms and busts of its coal economy and there is no reason to believe that these fundamentals will change. While our state is much more economically diverse than it was several decades ago, most of state’s new jobs have been in the service sector that provides lower wages and less health care and pension coverage. For coal counties, which suffer disproportionately from poor economic and social outcomes and a lack of infrastructure, there has been very little in the way of solutions from the federal and state level to fix the situation.

The current administration is also to blame. Obama has not put forth policy solutions so our state can adequately transition over the coming decades nor have they responded to allegations that his administration is waging a “war on coal”.

While Romney and Ryan may scale back some of the EPA’s proposed regulations on air pollution and green house gases, their plans to cut Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid will have a far greater impact on the livelihood of working families in West Virginia than any of Obama’s proposed EPA regulations.

The state’s biggest economic challenge is make the state – and especially those areas that rely heavily on extractive industries – a better place to live, work, do business, and raise a family. To achieve these goals we will need a workforce with more skills and educational attainment, a plan to diversify the economy and to adapt to its aging population, and a plan to invest heavily in human and physical capital like early childhood development.

While the state has done a good job of paying down its debts over the last decade, it has chosen to cut millions in corporate taxes instead of making the much needed investments that will create a better future for working families in the state. If policymakers, the media, and the business community can put half the energy that has gone into the “war on coal” over the last three years into developing real solutions to diversify our state’s economy and to solve our long-term problems like childhood poverty and lack of economic opportunity, than we might be able to fix some of the central problems that are facing working families in the state.

And Sen. Jay Rockefeller had this to say:

West Virginia’s coal industry is facing some tough challenges and none of them have simple solutions. We need to be honest about what those challenges are, rather than talk in sound bites for political purposes. Low natural gas prices, mild winters and lower electricity demand have all reduced the domestic demand for coal. And in the Central Appalachian Basin, we know that coal production is predicted to decline significantly because of the increased cost of mining smaller coal seams. Politics has nothing to do with any of that, nor will those factors go away once the election is over. There have also been pressures put upon the industry to clean up the use of coal – pressures based on the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and the 2007 Supreme Court Decision in EPA vs. Massachusetts – which will remain. I hope that when we get the election behind us, people on all sides of this issue commit to finding common ground, and renew the focus on technology. I continue to work on solutions for bringing public and private investments together and firmly believe that with everyone on board we can fully realize the potential of clean coal technology.

And here were some more detailed comments from Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America:

Very few challenges working families have ever faced just “go away” of their own accord, so these and other issues will need to start — or continue — to be addressed. The coal industry will still have significant market challenges, competitive challenges, employment challenges, retirement security challenges, environmental challenges, health and safety challenges and geologic challenges on Jan. 21, 2013, no matter who is in office.

Thinking that all these things will simply go away if Gov. Romney wins is delusional and does a disservice to the industry and those who work in it. We need to be engaged in meeting these challenges, no matter who is in charge in Washington.

As an aside, I would say that the labor movement has been working for many years to address anti-union labor laws and the lack of enforcement of the few laws we do have that protect workers’ rights on the job, so I don’t know that I would say that particular effort is just beginning. Unfortunately, the already strong and growing corporate influence over the last two decades or so in the national Democratic party is making it just as uncaring about things like true workers’ rights as the Republicans have always been.

And let’s not forget what Alpha’s Crutchfield said on Friday when asked what a change in administration would do for Central Appalachian coal’s prospects:

If there were to be an administration change you’ve to be honest with yourself in terms of what can be done. One thing that I think is difficult is to reverse decisions that have been made over the course of the last several years. I do think that is challenging. Everybody likes to talk about it, but I think we’re all pretty realistic in terms of how difficult that can be.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll all be free of the campaign commercials and other nonsense. Starting tomorrow, maybe coalfield political leaders will be at least a little more free of worrying that if they dare tell the truth about this industry’s decline that they’ll be branded as part of the “war on coal.” Starting tomorrow, maybe folks on different sides of the coal discussion will come together to try to find common ground and chart a course. Starting tomorrow, we might have elected a new president — or just re-elected the old one. Starting tomorrow, everyone could start working to really make things better, instead of just fighting with each other.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by singer Bruce Springsteen, waves as he arrive at a campaign event near the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wis., Monday, Nov. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)