Still searching for Cecil Roberts

April 21, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.


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?

4 Responses to “Still searching for Cecil Roberts”

  1. Ralphieboy says:

    “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.”
    True…but other nations are starting to recognize that we, as a world, must do something soon to mitigate climate change before it is too late:

  2. Forrest Roles says:

    I think Mr. Roberts is generally right on this subject. The EPA regs he complains about have the direct acknowledged purpose and effect of reducing the burning of coal so as to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses and other byproducts with the acknowledged result of economic damage and increased unemployment in the already suffering Southern Appalachia. More importantly, the increased devastation to the people he represents will have no even discernible benefit to the effort to fight global warming because other countries will continue to burn increasing amounts of coal and increasingly release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we share. It is a policy justified only by a demonstrably false hope that our self inflicted harm will persuade those other countries to likewise devastate portions of their economies. It will not for the reasons set out in a recent Economist article.
    My only quarrel with Mr. Roberts is his failure to outline all the harm caused by these fruitless regulations. They will reduce contributions to the already troubled UMWA pension system. The will reduce desperately needed tax revenues to Southern Appalachian states and, more seriously, to the coal counties which are already unable to sufficiently fund their school systems. Finally, the damage to workers and their families of the unemployment of proud and capable workers will be huge.
    Finally, I believe Mr. Roberts failed to sufficiently distance himself and his Union from the environmentalist dominated national Democratic Party. Their controlling influence of this administration was demonstrated by the recent politically motivated decision to postpone decision on the Keystone pipeline. The action needed is to remove these heartless politicians from influence in Washington. Good willed Americans are working to do so this fall. I wish Mr. Roberts would join them.

  3. Dan Taylor says:

    My mention of the Patriot Coal situation stems from two facts. First, I commend the UMWA’s work to help their members get the benefits that they are rightfully entitled to, but why was Mr. Robert’s op-ed not about that or related concerns and instead about the EPA and Obama? My issue was with priorities and not the good work that they have done and which I do support. Also, OVEC actively supported the UMWA in the struggle against Patriot, why was this never acknowledged? Here is a blog from 2012:

    I also do not recall OVEC ever cheering at job loss due to coal plant closures. When did this happen?

    Frankly, if you want to look to Bill Raney, a paid lobbyist for the coal industry, to support and be an ally for economic diversification in Southern West Virginia, good luck with that…

  4. Dan Taylor says:

    Again, my point is that we have tried to be allies in the past to working people in the coal industry, who we do sympathize with, and with the UMWA who is fighting on their behalf. But, apparently this has done nothing to stop the cheap attacks on “environmental groups” that happens as a way to score political points and avoid really doing anything to fix our situation. But, I would still like to see that change and hope that we can be true allies with the UMWA in fighting for all people in Southern West Virginia.

    That is also why I was bothered by the attack on the Obama administration as well, which is the most pro-labor administration of my lifetime. We need to be reaching out them as allies as well to help fight for a better future in Southern West Virginia, and not keep pushing them away. Obama did not create the situation in Southern West Virginia, nor did environmental laws. This situation was created over the course of many years by changes in the market and in technology, by state political leadership, and by the coal industry themselves.

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