There is an old tale of King Canute, who set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tides to not wet his feet or robes. But the tide came in, and the king told his sycophantic servants that there are some things not even a king can control.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts had his King Canute moment this week when he announced he would accept President Joe Biden’s plan to move the nation’s energy industry away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. What Roberts wants is for displaced miners to be remembered as Biden’s plan moves forward.
About 7,000 miners lost their jobs last year, Roberts says.
“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,” Roberts said Monday in an online speech to the National Press Club.
The UMWA recently released a five-page plan “Preserving Coal Country” that outlines the union’s proposals for retaining coal jobs while adapting to the new green energy reality. Some proposals encourage the development and use of utility-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Others create incentives to increase steel production in the United States, as that would increase consumption of metallurgical coal. Another would develop processes for alternative uses for coal.
To create jobs, the UMWA wants the Biden infrastructure bill to fully fund all anticipated Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation needs and require states to aggregate contracts for reclamation and require prevailing wages so that union contractors can successfully compete for those contracts. The union also wants the Senate to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., signed on to the UMWA proposal. Manchin said he was for “innovation, not elimination” of coal, and he supports the PRO Act.
At first glance it would appear Roberts might be surrendering to the inevitable — that market forces have decided coal-fired power plants will be replaced by natural gas and renewables, so miners might as well find other industries suited for their skills.
But this is not a surrender but instead is a balancing act — save what coal jobs can be saved through carbon capture and develop other jobs in energy-related fields within commuting distance of coal communities.
This won’t be a simple task, even if the president signs on to it. Appalachian Power tried carbon capture and storage at its Mountaineer plant in Mason County about a decade ago. What it found was that the process is expensive. When the Public Service Commission wouldn’t allow Appalachian Power to increase its rates to recover the cost of carbon capture, the experiment ended.
“Clean coal” is one of those goals that sounds good but always encounters barriers in the real world. A breakthrough will be required to make clean coal economically feasible. If that breakthrough is found, coal could rise like a phoenix from its own ashes.
Despite these reservations, Roberts has given Congress a starting point to negotiate a plan to help coal communities that are suffering from the transition to natural gas and renewables. Roberts says he doesn’t want to talk about a “just transition,” as some people call it. As stated in the Preserving Coal Country plan, the union demands “a set of specific, concrete actions that are fully-funded and long-term.”
There are some good proposals in the UMWA’s plan. While some parts might not be economically or politically feasible, talks can now begin so people can see how serious the president and Congress are about mitigating the damage coal communities throughout the nation have suffered in the past decade.