As coal mines shutter across the country and the prevalence of black lung increases, American coal workers say they are running out of hope for a political fix.
“We’re starting to think that the government is just waiting for us all to die and go away,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said at a media briefing this week.
After years of fighting for health care and pension plan protection with limited success, the union leader said coal miners are skeptical of campaign promises to support their flagging industry as coal is phased out of the power system.
“People are talking about us needing a transition,” said Roberts. “Well, our transition unfortunately has been at the bankruptcy courts, and what you get out of a bankruptcy court is whatever your union can win for you.”
Roberts spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, ahead of CNN’s televised climate town hall with leading Democratic primary candidates. The union leader said the Green New Deal and other progressive climate proposals would eliminate coal-mining jobs and threaten the middle-class lifestyle coal workers and their families currently enjoy.
At current salary levels, Roberts argued that miners would need two solar installation jobs in order to earn what they make now. He cautioned that building trade and utility jobs would also be at risk.
“I don’t think a good starting point for Democrats is to eliminate union jobs,” Roberts said.
Roberts wasn’t only critical of Democrats. He also pushed back on the Trump administration for suggesting that the U.S. coal industry is on the rise.
While President Trump has rolled back Obama-era regulations intended to curb fossil fuel emissions, these changes have merely helped to stem job losses by propping up the production of metallurgical coal used for making steel. Power plants that use steam coal continue to close at a rapid pace.
At an August 2018 rally in West Virginia, President Trump declared, “The coal industry is back."
Roberts challenged that claim Wednesday. “Coal is not back,” he said. “Nobody saved the coal industry.”
Pain and protests
The Mine Workers news conference was held as coal miners in Kentucky continued to protest over unpaid wages after their employer, Blackjewel LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1. Workers have been camped out on a railroad track in Harlan County since July 29 to block the company from transporting coal until the miners are properly compensated.
Around 1,700 coal miners lost their jobs when Blackjewel declared bankruptcy. Paychecks bounced, leaving many workers with thousands of dollars of debt.
“We’re rapidly reducing the amount of coal in this country, but we’re doing it very painfully,” Roberts said.
U.S. coal company bankruptcies have historically resulted in reorganizations rather than liquidations, according to Matt Preston, research director for North American coal markets at Wood Mackenzie. As long as the mine was productive it would remain open and operational to keep revenues flowing as the company paid back its debts. Although they were producing less tonnage, companies like Peabody would continue to make a fair amount of profit throughout the bankruptcy process.
But the bankruptcy process has changed. “The market is contracting so fast that rather than reorganization, we might see liquidations,” said Preston.
Dozens of coal companies have shut in the U.S. over the past decade, primarily due to competition from low gas prices and increasingly competitive renewable energy. Recent bankruptcies are influenced by the overall demand for coal, which has dropped by roughly 30 percent in the last five years. Mining companies have also seen margins shrink as they’ve sold less volume.
But debt levels are also a factor. U.S. mining companies spent a lot of money to purchase additional reserves in the early 2000s, and took on a lot of debt to do so, said Preston. At the time, coal prices were going up and China was poised to be an attractive market for decades to come.
Now that the market has turned, coal company debts are coming due. According to calculations by the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank, Blackjewel has about $245 million in debt and only $138,000 in the bank. Upon declaring bankruptcy, the company closed 32 mines across the country.
According to Preston, it’s an open question as to whether they’ll ever reopen again.
Holding lawmakers accountable
For miners, bankruptcy could mean losing their job, as well as their health care coverage and pension benefits upon retirement. Roberts acknowledged that coal miners can’t count on companies for protection, but he placed the blame for their plight squarely on Congress for not passing bankruptcy reform.
“Anything that’s happened in bankruptcy, I hold those elected officials who could have done something about this accountable for that,” he said.
The UMWA 1974 Pension Plan is currently hanging on by a thread. Unless lawmakers come up with a solution, the union expects around 100,000 beneficiaries will lose their benefits around 2022. And if Murray Energy folds, the fund could collapse in a matter of months.
A group of Democrats led by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia have introduced legislation to secure the pensions and health care coverage of coal workers. But the miners are still waiting on a fix, as they watch to see how progressive new climate policies could affect their industry going forward.
Many coal miners have found new union jobs laying down pipelines for natural gas used to generate electricity. Under Democrat plans calling for 100 percent renewable power, Roberts said these workers would soon be out of a job again.
“We come here today to be part of this conversation. We want to talk to everybody. We want our pensions saved; we want our health care plans saved,” said Roberts. “If you can’t do that in 10 years, how can we believe you will give us a just transition?”
While Roberts is skeptical that a shift away from coal can ever work in miners’ favor, others say a transition is the only genuine solution and that proposals to prop up the U.S. coal sector are disingenuous.
“One of the things that enraged me the most about how the Trump administration talked saving these jobs is that the types of policies they’ve put forward aren’t doing what they say,” said Sonia Aggarwal, vice president of the energy and environmental research firm Energy Innovation. “In fact, they’re doing the opposite, and I think that’s inexcusable.”
Aggarwal specifically takes issue with the Trump administration’s efforts to shore up unprofitable coal and nuclear power plants. Under the administration’s proposal, most of the support would have gone to coal companies or power plant owners as opposed to workers and communities, she said. In her view, a better solution would be to proactively plan for the transition, instead of flushing money down the drain to keep these plants open for a few more years.
There are currently around 52,000 coal miners in the U.S. today, with more than 34,000 jobs lost over the past decade. Of those remaining, around 10 percent are members of the coal miners union.
Aggarwal said that bankruptcy reform needs to be part of the solution for these workers, but that the government could also step in to offer direct financial support.
“The amount of money it would cost to genuinely take care of workers affected by the energy transition is so small compared to many other federal government activities,” she said.
Another important piece is ensuring that there’s gap support for entire communities affected by the economic shift, and that community members — rather than out of town politicians — get to decide how they want to spend that money.
Aggarwal added that workers in these regions don’t have to take jobs in the clean energy sector. It’s unreasonable to suggest that coal miners will all become solar installers. The aim is to make any kind of viable employment available and possibly shore up worker salaries with public funds in the meantime.
“These communities and workers have suffered some of the greatest consequences of getting America to the economic status it currently enjoys, so it doesn’t make sense to leave these people behind,” Aggarwal said.
Questioning Democrat climate plans
Several Democratic presidential candidates have offered plans to support coal communities while moving the U.S. to a greener economy. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan would guarantee benefits for coal miners and increase the payments coal companies make into a federal program to help miners battling with black lung disease.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan would also guarantee health care coverage and pensions for coal miners, while Senator Bernie Sanders pledged to spend $1.3 trillion to ensure that coal miners and workers in other carbon-intensive industries receive strong benefits, a living wage, skills training and job placement.
Roberts underscored that the coal union’s skepticism of these plans is not rooted in climate denial.
“We have never denied — ever, ever — the existence of climate change,” he said. “It’s real, and it’s upon us, and it needs to be dealt with. However, how we deal with it is the question.”
In his address this week, Roberts called on the U.S. government to not simply phase coal power out, but to develop and subsidize carbon capture and sequestration technology so that coal can burn clean. He pointed to the fact that global coal use continues to rapidly increase, even as U.S. consumption declines, as an economic opportunity.
“Coal is still the dominant fuel source in the world for generating electricity. We may not like that, but that is a fact,” said Roberts. “Without this technology — that we would hopefully develop and sell around the world — that’s never going to change; no matter what we do here in the U.S., we’re still going to have a global climate problem.”
If the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill had passed in the Senate in 2010, the U.S. would have been way further down the road on carbon capture, he added. The bill would have invested heavily in removing carbon from burning coal and the United Mine Workers supported it at the time.
Preston at Wood Mackenzie said that with greater investment, carbon capture and sequestration could become cost-competitive, just as wind turbines and solar panels have seen costs plummet over time. As more variable clean energy resources come online, fossil fuel plants outfitted with carbon capture technology could help to ensure grid stability, but research and development activity would need to move much faster.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s about 10 years out of step with when we might need it,” Preston said.
In the meantime, Roberts said he’s hopeful that social media technology could provide a lifeline to coal miners. If President Trump tweeted that coal miners are entitled to their pensions, “that just might do the trick,” he said.
Related research: 'Energy Transition Outlook' (Wood Mackenzie)