Why Coal Mining Families Should Embrace A Fee On Carbon

Last week Alpha Natural Resources announced the opening of a new mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia. According to the press release, Marfork Coal Company, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, will hire 50 miners to access an 8.8 million ton reserve of metallurgical coal at the new Panther Eagle Mine.

According to a 5-year pricing average based on data obtained from the Energy Information Administration, the reserve at the new Panther Eagle Mine is worth a conservative $952 million dollars.

At its peak, Paramont Coal’s Deep Mine 26, where I was once employed, produced 1.9 million tons of metallurgical coal in a single year. The average workforce for that year was 232 miners, and their labor generated approximately $187 million dollars of wealth based on average coal export prices that year. Similar calculations indicate that the mine has shipped out an estimated 2 billion dollars of wealth from my home county since 2002. Meanwhile, the Dickenson County school system, facing the need to replace high schools 60 to 70 years old, relied heavily upon federal tax payer dollars to fund the construction of a new consolidated middle and high school.

All of this points to one of the ongoing problems we face in Appalachia—the wealth inequality that exists between our communities and the resources that lay beneath them.

While Appalachia has been labeled as “America’s Saudi Arabia of Coal,” outside ownership of the coal reserves has created an economic vacuum for Appalachian communities, keeping them among the most impoverished in the nation. The early years of coal saw Appalachians and other minorities, subjugated within coal company towns, policed by company “mine guards,” and paid in company money only accepted at company owned businesses within the “town.” Despite the dismantling of these towns, a similarly captive workforce has been maintained through a lack of economic diversification efforts.

Short of nationalizing Appalachia’s mines and coal reserves—however fitting it might be given the unethical means used to obtain our mineral rights in the first place—to alleviate the multi-generational poverty created within Appalachia, an external, well funded solution will need to address the ongoing economic and environmental issues our region faces. One alternative that has been proposed, are fees placed on carbon emissions with dividends payed directly to individual families. The Citizens Climate Lobby has been working towards a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend (CFD) in which all funds generated by the fee are paid out equally to families across the nation monthly. The Tax Pollution, Not Profits Act introduced by Representative John Delaney (D-MD) is somewhat similar with a different means of distributing the funds to low and middle income families, as well as earmarking 2% for helping coal miners.

At first, a carbon fee and dividend system may appear detrimental to coal mining communities, especially if viewed through the lens of industry “War on Coal” rhetoric. However, if one looks at it through the lens of the Alaska Permanent Fund, they will come away with a much different perspective. For those unfamiliar with the Alaska Permanent Fund, it is a fund derived from oil industry operations in Alaska that provides a dividend check to every Alaskan family who has lived in the state for more than one year.

Even the staunchest coal supporter in Appalachia will agree that more wealth has been taken from our communities than has been returned. It is hard to dismiss the great progress of this nation brought by coal powered electricity, and the massive infrastructure that has been built by steel. Coal miners see these things and realize it was through their sacrifices that America was built, yet each day they must drive through dead and dying communities. I feel many Appalachians would agree that it is past time their communities gained more benefit from their remaining coal reserves.

A CFD alone will not solve Appalachia’s long-term problems however. Major reform must also come at the state level within the coal severance tax system. All revenues generated should be placed into regional transition initiatives rather than being funneled off into state general funds. There is an amazing potential to re-train coal miners in building trades and similar skills while employing them to build and rebuild local infrastructure to be more energy efficient. Along with initiatives such as the RECLAIM Act (H.R. 4456) that will fund the repair of lands damaged by mining prior to 1977, a variety of options exist to help coal mining families as the economy transitions away form coal.

Large scale economic transitions are never without their growing pains, but they are necessary and have been done in the past (see the Virginia Tobacco farming industry). We just need to educate ourselves, remember and honor our past, and make political choices that will give our children a brighter future, not one imprisoned beneath the surface of our mountains.