The Coal War

Last week, Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, accepted the Washington Coal Club's Annual Achievement Award (who knew?) for his efforts to stop President Obama's "war on coal jobs". McConnell has pushed through the Senate two regulations that would block the Administration's Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce the use of coal in power production.

The House of Representatives is expected to approve similar legislation as that passed by the Senate, and the Commander-in Chief will then veto it. And so "the war" is sure to continue.
Who are the casualties in this conflict? Today, there are around 80,000 people involved in mining coal in the United States, and another 30,000 in transporting it -far fewer than are employed in either the solar or wind energy industries. Half of all the miners are in just 3 states--West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky (McConnell's home state). So, if Obama's war on coal jobs actually led to all coal production coming to an end--a most unlikely scenario--the impact would be miniscule in terms of national employment (a loss of ~0.1% of the US labor force).

However, for those employed in the coal industry, the impact would be severe indeed, as coal mining provides well-paid jobs in areas where there are few other options for employment. Mining is a peculiarly site-specific activity, so communities near mines often rely heavily on that industry. Closing mines can have devastating social consequences, as we saw when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed dozens of uneconomic mines in the UK in the 1970s, without any plans for those affected. There are many lessons to be learned from that experience.

First, it may not be realistic to envision miners re-training for high tech, well-paid jobs--in West Virginia, for example, the average age of miners is 55, and in any case, well-paid high tech jobs are rather scarce in that part of the world. But there may be other jobs, such as environmental restoration, that could provide continued employment if funding for those activities was available. What President Obama should not do is follow Thatcher's example, in which she ignored the social and economic reality and failed to offer alternative employment options.

Coal is definitely on the decline as a major fuel in the United States, not only because of more stringent environmental regulations, but also because cheaper options are available in abundance, a consequence of the fracking of natural gas. Obama had very little to do with that development and so regardless of whether McConnell prevails in his legislative battles, not many people are going to consider the coal mining industry for their long-term investments. So, this is a war McConnell simply can't win, as the number of coal jobs will inevitably decline.

Nevertheless, Obama should reflect on the UK experience. In Paris, at the COP21 climate change negotiations, he will pledge billions of dollars in U.S. aid to subsidize green energy production in developing countries. This is an essential strategy to ensure that future carbon dioxide emissions are capped, to limit the societal impacts of climate change. But those arguments will carry little weight in the small communities around the U.S. where a shift in the energy production landscape will also cause direct economic and social disruption.

The administration should recognize this reality and consider a similar program of aid within the U.S. Some of this could be used to restore environmental damage from mining, while helping those displaced from an industry that has no future, to sustain themselves and their families. It's unlikely that such actions will make Obama very popular with the Washington Coal Club, but it's still the right thing to do.

I thank sourcewatch.org ("Coal and jobs in the United States") for helpful statistics.