Coal’s War On America

At its peak, some 3,000 people worked in Portal 31 and more than 1 million tons of coal per year passed through the mine, the largest in the world when it was built in 1917. Today, roughly 747 residents remain outside the mine in the town of Lynch, down from the 10,000 at its heyday. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN
At its peak, some 3,000 people worked in Portal 31 and more than 1 million tons of coal per year passed through the mine, the largest in the world when it was built in 1917. Today, roughly 747 residents remain outside the mine in the town of Lynch, down from the 10,000 at its heyday. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN

Coal stocks are falling. Coal companies are declaring bankruptcy at an astonishing rate. Is there, really, a war on coal?

If there is, it isn’t being waged by the White House. Despite the administration’s recently released Clean Power Plan, which will push utilities to transition to clean energy, coal was already on its way out — being killed as much by innovations in the power sector and a growing realization that coal is literally killing people, as by policy.

But you wouldn’t know it from the coal industry’s rhetoric. The coal industry — and its legislative supporters — are heavily invested in a campaign to convince Americans that their 80,000 mining jobs are the bedrock of the country’s economy.

In the Powder River Basin, the top companies control hundreds of subsidiaries. And those companies give a lot of money to keep pro-coal legislators in office. Arch Coal — which declared bankruptcy earlier this month — was one of the three top coal mining contributors to political campaigns, according to Sourcewatch. From 2009 to 2011, the company spent roughly $2 million a year on lobbying efforts. More recently, Arch invited presidential candidate Jeb Bush to speak at a closed-doors meeting with coal executives.


Legislators are listening. In 2012, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing titled “Coal is a Cornerstone of Our Economy.” From 2012 to 2013, the coal industry lost another 10 percent of its mining jobs — about 8,000 people. That same year, the solar industry gained 23,000 jobs. (These jobs aren’t exactly one to one, since the solar count includes accountants and lawyers who work in the industry, but it does show a significant trend). Perhaps even more tellingly — in cornerstone terms — the economy as a whole improved from 2012 to 2013.

Coal companies, by nature, are heavily invested in continuing to mine coal. But their insistence that politicians back them up on this might be worse for miners than simply transitioning to other industries. In an oft-used metaphor, a lot of wagon makers went out of business when the car was invented, but that doesn’t mean we should still be using horses.

That’s not to say that miners are not suffering. Miners, here, are caught between a rock and a hard place. Time and again when talking about their jobs, miners say it’s difficult and dangerous. But it’s also the only option. Places that have more heavily invested in renewable energy sources have reaped the benefits of the accompanying jobs. In an era when large companies control much of the industry, miners are not the ones who benefit from their hard work, but they don’t benefit from regional economic dependence on an industry that is fast falling out of modern times.

Many miners who see their livelihoods falling away in the modern era are angry about the situation — and at the companies themselves.

“If you believe for one minute that [coal companies] give a damn for the regular people, just sit across from their lawyers in a workman’s compensation case or watch this video on ABC News clip about how they bribe doctors to deny black lung cases,” wrote Nick Mullins at The Thoughtful Coal Miner.


The coal industry has a dismal track record on protecting its people. Coal miners are twice as likely to miss work with injury or illness as the general public, according to the Department of Labor. For decades, accidents killed thousands of miners in America each year. As the number of miners has gone down, so have fatalities, but eight coal miners have already been killed in the United States this year.

Mullins is enthusiastic about moving his community away from mining.

“I don’t want to hear people say there are no options, that coal is all we’ve got,” Mullins wrote. “There are a lot of options, including my favorite, creating jobs in various building trades to upgrade infrastructure and make it more efficient. If we can spend billions of dollars fighting wars overseas for oil, we can spend a few billion paying people good wages to upgrade the infrastructure of Appalachia and the nation, and to fix the damage that’s already been done.”

It’s likely that Obama had this idea in mind when he proposed putting a billion dollars towards environmental projects in mining country — employment-heavy projects like replanting trees that would offer the areas an economic boost.

Because it’s not just the miners who suffer. Coal has become a lightning rod for the environmental community for good reason. Coal-fired power plants have been responsible for environmentally devastating pollution. “Coal plants are one of the largest sources of man-made mercury pollution in the U.S. Every year 300,000 infants are born at risk for developmental defects because of their mother’s exposure to toxic mercury pollution,” the Sierra Club says on its website. The group recently announced that its “Beyond Coal” campaign has helped shut down 200 coal-fired power plants. (There are about 500 plants still operating).

Across the United States, coal-fired power plants are also responsible for a more than three-quarters of the carbon emissions from the electricity sector. Curbing carbon emissions is widely accepted as the only way to avert the ever-increasing threats posed by human-caused climate change, so for many people, moving away from coal is a moral imperative.


Coal companies, though, are pushing a different narrative — one in which they are all that stands between prudent state regulators and Obama-initiated rolling blackouts.

The Clean Power Plan “will burden Americans with increasingly high-costs for an essential service and a less reliable electric grid for delivering it,” the National Mining Association said in a statement. The association has also come up with cost predictions that differ wildly from the EPA analysis. A report prepared for the group and other mining interests found that the proposed plan would cost Americans $479 billion. The EPA found that — including health costs — the plan will save money.

Many utilities are already transitioning away from coal on an economic basis. The surge in wind and solar has pushed prices down for those technologies, and the natural gas boom has encouraged transition, as well.

For instance, Kentucky, a heavily coal-powered state, is well on its way to compliance with the CPP, the Washington Post reported. In the next two years, five of the state’s coal-fired power plants are scheduled to close or switch to natural gas , either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. Closing these five plants will reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 16 percent below 2012 numbers. The state has also begun federal programs to transition its economy to other industries.

Despite this, Kentucky joined efforts to delay and stop the rule. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has directly called for his state to avoid submitting the required plan.

“Don’t be complicit in the administration’s attack on the middle class,” McConnell wrote in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Refusing to go along at this time with such an extreme proposed regulation would give the courts time to figure out if it is even legal, and it would give Congress more time to fight back. We’re devising strategies now to do just that.”

McConnell’s language is not far from what the coal companies are saying.

Deck Slone, Arch Coal’s senior vice president of strategy and public policy, also issued a statement telling states not to go along with the plan.

“We urge states to contest the rule vigorously and to defend their longstanding authority to manage their electric power systems in the way they deem most cost-effective, prudent, and wise,” Slone said.

Unfortunately for miners, cost-effective, prudent, and wise seems to point away from coal.