Small town America · The Unwinding of America · Trump

Coal mining and survival in Appalachia

Coptis, 170703_r30225
“Veronica Coptis with her daughter and her father.  Having grown up among coal miners, she is an unlikely activist.  Photography by Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for the New Yorker.”

Another part of the article is about how bad mining and burning coal is for America.  Few people, except those who make fortunes from coal, disagree that burning coal is harmful to American clean air and water.  “It fills the air with particulate matter that kills tens of thousands of people every year, it churns millions of tons of CO2 into the air annually, it is one of the major causes of global warming, and mining coal destroys natural habitat like a runaway bulldozer.

Another indisputable fact is that mining and burning coal is a dying business that is being forced out by cheaper natural gas.   Coal mining companies and coal burning utilities are going out of business almost weekly these days. With fracking, natural gas is so much cheaper, that coal can no longer compete.  And it isn’t only natural gas; wind and solar energy and other forms of renewable energy are in many places becoming less expensive than coal.

President Obama recognized all of this and in his last year of office he began his Clean Power Plan to phase out coal mining and burning in favor of natural gas and renewable energy.   He realized that this was going to put a many people out of work though, so he also allocated a lot of money for retraining workers and for the support of out-of-work coal miners and their families.  Obama knew that coal was not going to last forever, that someday soon it was going to be replaced by cleaner and cheaper forms of energy and that planning for this reality needed to begin now .   And he’s not the only one to realize this.  Not long ago the county commissioner in Greene County predicted that coal will be finished in Greene County in thirty years at the latest.

And then along came candidate and later President Trump who dropped a big  complication into all of this.    Trump falsely promised to bring coal mining back to what it was forty years ago and he promised coal miners that their jobs will be coming back big time.  “In May, 2016, he told a group of miners at a rally, “Get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off!””

Unfortunately there is no way this will happen.  The economic forces leading to the end of coal are too powerful for anyone to change.  When coal is the most expensive fuel for generating energy, energy suppliers either have to convert to cheaper fuels or go out of business.  These are the only choices.  This is already happening.  Coal companies are going bankrupt at an increasing rate and electric companies are converting to natural gas en-mass.   One of the last big coal mines in the area is already planing to turn itself into a natural gas company.  “Consol [Energy] has put the Bailey Mine Complex, its last coal asset, up for sale in favor of developing natural gas.”

Currently there are no new coal burning electric plants being built.   Building and operating an electric generating plant is a 50 year investment, and no one is going to build a coal burning plant that will go out of date long before it begins to be profitable.

And then there is the fact that more and more coal mining jobs are being replaced by automation.  “Since the nineteen-thirties, when the rise of unions drove up the price of labor, coal operators have increasingly turned to automation—a process that the unions supported, because it improved safety and efficiency. In the past three decades, employment in the industry has shrunk from a hundred and eighty thousand jobs to about fifty thousand.”  Unfortunately, everything seems to be conspiring against the few remaining coal miners.

Clearly, Trump is not going to bring back coal mining jobs.  But the situation is actually even worse.  Trump is not going to bring coal back, and he is also not planing for the future, when, in ten or twenty or thirty years, there will be very few or even zero coal mining jobs left.  What are tens of thousands of coal miners and their families going to do then?  And it gets still worse yet;  Trump is not planning for the future, but even worse, he is actively cutting funding intended to help unemployed coal miners and their families.   The Appalachian Regional  Commission was designed to do just this,  yet Trump already has listed it as one of the things that will have to be eliminated in order to pay for his tax cuts to the rich.  It is one of those “unnecessary” expenses that he wants to cut out of his new 2017 budget.

And then there is the Republican Health Care Bill which massively cuts Medicaid, the only health care most of Appalachia depends upon for health care.  Without Medicaid, the vast majority of unemployed coal miners and their families will not be able to afford any medical care at all.

Many people  wonder how coal miners and their families could have been so dumb as to help elect Trump President if he is clearly making promises he cannot fill and if he is  going to be the one who will hurt them the most in the future.  Many people have accused the Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal miners of being suckers who are  too stupid to know what is good or bad for them.

But this is a huge over-simplification.  This is one of the things about this article that most surprised me.  In the first place, the coal miners who are still working are not impoverished people.  Coal miners make good money, about $36.00 an hour.  And with overtime, this can often add up to $150,000.00 a year.  (This is about three times the mean salary of Pennsylvania and West Virginia citizens.)  In addition to this,  the Pennsylvania coal miners have a pretty good idea what the future of coal is.  Many of them know that coal is not going to around in a few more years.  But these people have kids and mortgages and car payments, and all the dreams and hopes that the rest of us have.  They don’t want to lose all that in the immediate future, and they see Trump as maybe, possibly being able to help them keep their jobs for five or ten more years.  And that’s something, they think.  And they are right.  I’d probably do the same thing if I were a coal miner.  And many coal miners also realize that Trump will not be a good president in many ways and that he could do a lot of damage to American lives and to their lives.

Christina and Frank Zaccone are a typical Greene county coal mining family.  They voted for Trump.

““We’re not a bunch of toothless, uneducated miners,” Christina said. Her daughters ran into the dining room; the older one, who was four, wore a T-shirt that read, “never underestimate the power of a girl.” “No one wants to repress anyone else, no one wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned,” she added. “We voted for coal here, and just crossed our fingers that Trump wouldn’t go too far.”

[Frank felt that voting for Trump] was the first time he felt that his opinion mattered, he said: “People like me made it happen.” Since the election, his overtime hours had increased. Trump might not be able to change the market, but in the short term he could restore jobs. “Coal will never go back to the way it was, but if Trump cuts back on regulation he can give us jobs for the next ten years,” he said. “We’ve got car loans and school loans and kids,” Christina [his wife] added. “Honest to God, if we can make it ten more years, we’re cool.”

The problem of the end of coal in America is a huge one.  In the medium run, or maybe even in the short run, coal as a source of energy in America is finished.  But in the process of coal dying, a lot of good people are going to get hurt and a lot more damage to the environment is still going to be done.  But we have to get through the end of coal and eventually even though the end of oil as intelligently and with as little damage as possible.

And this is not going to be easy.

Read the article.  It is a great article with tons more information that the few tidbits I’ve included here.  It is also full of a lot of good stories.

Post by Fred Hanselmann
June 26, 2-17
Comments Encouraged


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