Until recently, the reason for decline in the number of coal workers wasn’t because of environmental regulations, or even competition from other sources of energy. It was because of automation. Both surface and underground mines added more and more large equipment over time. Men blowing up the coal face with dynamite and pickaxes then shoveling the rubble into wagons has long been supplanted by massive electrical “continuous miners.” And when continuous miners aren’t enough, longwall machines get even more coal, faster.
And that’s just underground. Many mines were closed simply because they were put out of business by other mines, specifically large surface mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, where coal could be produced for less than the cost of transporting it to power plants. Individual mines in Wyoming produced over 100 million tons of coal in a year, outpacing entire states in the East. And they did it with only a relative handful of workers operating trucks that carry 400 tons in mines dug out by draglines the size of 15-story buildings. A modern miner loads 16 tons, several times over, with a single scoop of a massive electric-rope shovel.
As natural gas began to compete with coal for power production, it drove mines toward ever greater efficiency. Which created even more automation, a ruthless perfection of mining strategies, and ever fewer jobs. But after 2008, no matter what mines did, gas and wind and solar all began to undercut them. Plans for new coal power plants were canceled. Existing plants were idled. The demand for coal moved inexorably down. In the past five years, that trend has accelerated as the cost for building new wind and solar has actually moved below the cost of even maintaining an existing coal power plant.
The president of the UMWA, Cecil Roberts, made an online speech to the National Press Club on Monday in which his main concern was not keeping miners in the mines, but dealing with the fact that many workers in fossil fuels—not just coal, but also oil and gas—are losing them jobs, or soon will be, as both the market and climate change demand a switchover to clean power. And Roberts introduced a plan for “preserving coal country” that, notably, includes endorsement of expanding federal tax incentives for renewable energy, supporting Biden’s plan to plug old oil and gas wells, and additional funding to clean up abandoned mines.
Roberts announced that he was willing to support President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, if that plan includes helping to provide jobs for those displaced from mining. “I think we need to provide a future for those people, a future for anybody that loses their job because of a transition in this country, regardless if it’s coal, oil, gas or any other industry for that matter.″
It doesn’t hurt that Roberts and Biden have worked together for decades on labor issues. There’s a familiarity between the men that creates a trust that any plan put forward by Biden will not abandon miners.
Appearing with Roberts was everyone’s least favorite Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. However, in insisting that the infrastructure plan must include measures to help coal miners (spoiler alert: it already does) Manchin may have set at least part of his price for supporting the bill. And, of course, Manchin chose to use this opportunity to attack his fellow Democrats. Because … Joe Manchin.
“I can tell you how West Virginia feels. We feel like returning Vietnam veterans,″ said Manchin. “We’ve done every dirty job you’ve asked us to do. We never questioned. We did it and performed well. And now all of a sudden we’re not good enough, we’re not clean enough, we’re not green enough and we’re not smart enough. You want to know why they quit voting for Democrats, that’s the reason.″
It’s worth noting that every single effort put forward by Democratic presidents from Jimmy Carter onward that sought to provide for a cleaner energy plan has included funds to retrain miners and assist them in landing new jobs, and that Manchin is feigning outrage over something that no one ever said. But again … Manchin.
However, everything not Manchin-colored is still not perfect. There’s a giant potential sticking point in the proposal put forward by the UMWA, and it’s right at the top. In an effort to safeguard the small number of coal mining jobs remaining, Roberts’ plan calls for “significant” investment in carbon capture and storage technology, as well as investments in associated technology and the creation of a pilot plant. The idea of a functional carbon capture plant is a dream that the coal industry has been nurturing for decades, but the truth is that this technology may be impossible at any price. Not only have multiple attempts died on the drawing board, but the biggest effort to make this work—the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi—was forced to convert to natural gas after spending more than $7 billion. In fact, Kemper’s costs were so high that they ran out of funding before they got around to even building the proposed carbon capture facility.
The truth is, coal power is simply too expensive. Even if there were no regulations whatsoever, it could not compete with wind or solar today, and those technologies are getting cheaper by the year. If the government pays to create a coal power plant with carbon capture as a demonstration facility, it will be a one-off dinosaur, pointless well before construction.
If Roberts and Manchin make wasting billions on carbon capture a part of the price for their support, Biden’s infrastructure plan may still have a bumpy road ahead. However, the fact that both are at the table, talking about what they want to see, is a very good sign. One that likely means that Biden can get by with assurances to Roberts about transitioning miners into other jobs, with perhaps a face-saving gesture toward carbon capture. After all, the technology has potential uses outside of coal.
During his speech, Roberts talked about something that would be familiar to every worker who has found their textile mill or auto plant suddenly outsourced or idled. “We talk about a ‘just transition’ all the time,″ said Roberts. “I wish people would quit using that. There’s never been a just transition in the history of the United States.″
Transitions are hard. But the UMWA seems to recognize that if it doesn’t get on board now, it will miss the bus completely.