Coal Tattoo

Still searching for Cecil Roberts


We’ve written many times in this space about the huge problems, tricky politics, and uncertain future that challenge United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. See here, here, here and here.

So I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the op-ed commentary that President Roberts had in the Gazette a few weeks ago, in which he opined, among other things:

Downturns are common in the coal industry. But this one may never end because of a host of regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency that are slowly but surely putting a stranglehold on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of coal miners, utility workers, electrical workers, boilermakers, railroad workers and their families.

Power plants that have already spent millions coming into compliance with current emissions standards are closing prematurely. Their owners cannot economically justify spending the millions more it will cost to comply with this new onslaught of regulations. That means jobs are lost, tax revenues are squeezed, public services are threatened, school budgets are slashed.

Some see this as a cause for celebration. I do not. I see the faces of those who will suffer the indignities of unemployment. I hear the voices of those who have provided a good life for their families yet now wonder how long they can hold on to their house. I see the fear in the eyes of retirees who are suddenly threatened with the loss of hard-earned pensions and health care.

The piece went on to conclude:

We must recognize that other nations are not going to stop burning coal to build their economies just because we wag our finger at them and say they should, and that includes a growing list of developed nations like Germany and Poland. The answer to building a future our electronically wired descendants can live happily in is to develop and implement technology that allows the world to continue to use coal to generate electricity in a more environmentally friendly way.

We are on that path to doing that through carbon capture and storage technology, but significant hurdles remain that will require significant government resources to be invested. It’s going to require the kind of technological and engineering innovations – and corresponding resources – it took to put a man on the moon. As important as that effort was, in this challenge, the stakes are much higher.

The op-ed prompted a quick — and not especially thoughtful — response from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Organizer Dan Taylor wrote to ask why the UMWA isn’t focusing on improving worker safety (as if that isn’t something the union does) or taking on “bad actors” like Patriot Coal (as if the UMWA hadn’t just fought a major battle with Patriot and come out with a pretty good deal).

Miners Public Employees Rally

President Roberts and the UMWA are a convenient and sometimes easy target, especially for environmental activists who indeed do seem just a little bit too jubilant in celebrating coal-plant shutdowns that, while certainly good news for the planet’s climate, are terribly bad news for the people who rely on those plants to support their families. The string of “Why doesn’t the UMWA …” statements are easy to make, but they often ignore the difficult hand the union has been dealt and the complexity of problems facing coalfield communities. If diversifying the economies in these places were easy, it would probably have been done by now.

A more thoughtful, reasoned, and fair response to the UMWA’s latest op-ed commentary came in this Sunday’s paper, from Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native from a coal-mining family, who is working on climate change and economic diversity issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He writes:

The International President of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, was right to criticize environmentalists who pay lip service to “worker transition” when they discuss the future of coal. If we’re going to build that brighter future for West Virginia, we have to work together during this time of historic transition in the energy sector. The days of paying “lip service,” as well as playing the blame game, have to end.

For his part, Mr. Roberts presented an oversimplified take on what’s happening to the coal industry when he blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for its economic struggles.

It is no secret that cheap and abundant natural gas has fundamentally shifted the utility industry in the United States — only five years ago, we got about half of our electricity from coal, and that has fallen to around 40 percent today. Much of that gap has been filled with natural gas, although renewable energy like wind and solar are also growing quickly and becoming more and more competitive with fossil fuels.

The situation is worse in Southern West Virginia, where we’ve mined the highest quality and most accessible coal. In short, we’ve already burned the cheapest coal. For power plant operators that are still burning coal and haven’t switched to natural gas or shut down, it’s cheaper to buy coal from Illinois and Wyoming. Central Appalachian coal is becoming harder and harder to mine — and therefore more expensive.

The piece continues:

Coal miners like Mike Payton, who Mr. Roberts highlighted, are absolutely part of the state’s economic lifeblood. My own father worked in the coal industry for decades. He had one of the highest-paying jobs you can find in the state, and we knew how lucky we were for him to have that kind of work. My brother works in the very same mine today to provide for his 3-year old daughter. It’s something our family is very proud of.

But we need to look to the future with our eyes open. High school students in West Virginia cannot bank on being able to land a high-paying job with great benefits in the mines like they might have been able to 20 or 30 years ago. We need to work together to create new opportunities for our kids right here in West Virginia. They shouldn’t have to choose between a good job and calling the Mountain State home. We need our leaders to begin discussing the future in an honest way, recognizing that the future will not be like the past. In 2012, Citigroup released a report concluding that we’ve entered the “age of renewables.” These are bankers, not wild-eyed liberals.

Dozens of major energy companies are already baking a carbon price into their business models as the world moves to address climate change, a reality I was happy to see Mr. Roberts acknowledge. The world will continue to rely on coal, but less so than it did in the past. West Virginia can’t stop that.

Our challenge is to figure out how we can reduce the risks climate scientists have identified, like more damaging storms and dangerous heat waves, while respecting and revitalizing the communities that have kept the lights on for so many generations.

It concludes:

Fortunately, the state has many opportunities, if we only invest in them: high-tech manufacturing, renewable energy, tourism, energy efficiency, transportation, healthcare, and small businesses, to name a few. A diversified economy is a stronger economy, one that’s less susceptible to the inevitable booms and busts in coal and natural gas.

It won’t be easy, and we can’t do it alone. We need your help, Mr. Roberts. We need your help, Bill Raney. We need your help, Gov. Tomblin.

We can have an economically vibrant West Virginia that is more than coal. But we have to build it together. Will you join us?