Coal has been the dominant fuel source for electricity generation in the United States for decades, until just last year. In 2016, natural gas hit the historic mark of 1,378 TWhrs of annual generation, for the first time out producing coal at 1,239 TWhrs (EIA). The rise of natural gas can be traced back to the technological advancements of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the 1990’s. Though not without environmental pushback, natural gas production soared thanks to these new technologies, cheaper plant construction and operating costs, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and the dispatchable nature of the fuel source. The figures below clearly show this recent decline of coal plants and subsequent increase in natural gas generation capacity nationwide.
Proposed in 2014, the Clean Power Plan was championed by many environmentalists hoping to finally see the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities. The Plan would aid the fall of an industry already declining due to tougher regulations and increased competition with natural gas. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal production and coal power generation would see a steep drop if the Clean Power Plan, or a similar plan, were to take effect. With Scott Pruitt’s recent repeal of the Plan, coal will still see a predictable decline, albeit at a slower rate (Figure 3).
Interestingly, while the Clean Power Plan repeal might slow the inevitable death of coal, it will not benefit the coal miners who run the industry. Like the majority of manual work, the most pervasive threat today is automation. Mining is no different. Advancements in automation like rock crushers and shovel swings have been “a key reason that employment in the coal industry fell between 1980 and 2010 even as production grew” (Time). Figure 4 shows this seemingly uncharacteristic trend.
Ironically, the only thing keeping coal economical and in the competition, is automation. If automation decreases, coal production becomes more expensive and continues to fall in the face of natural gas. In either of these situations, the coal miner loses.
However, it seems as though the conversation continues to be focused on saving the coal industry under the guise of saving the coal miner. If we know that either automation increases and they lose their jobs, or the industry becomes less economic, and they lose their jobs, what is actually being done for them?
Right out of high school, coal miners can make $60-70,000, with experienced miners making $100,000 including benefits and a pension. Popular career transition jobs like warehouse jobs, manufacturing, etc., do not come close to the compensation these miners are accustomed to. Either specialized training or a college degree is often required for these workers to reach similar paychecks as before (Time).
The Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation within the U.S. Department of Labor has allocated certain states millions of dollars in funds to provide resources to displaced coal workers. These programs help refer them to a variety of resources to facilitate job search, help with applications such an unemployment, disability, or Black Lung, and most importantly, provide training. Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia have funds to retrain these workers in IT, construction, public works, and oil or gas industry positions. These retraining programs often provide weekly stipends for laid-off workers and their spouses who participate.
Private industries are also joining the effort. Rusty Justice, a Kentucky native, saw that many coal miners had experience in robotics and other technology present in the mines. He decided to form a small coding business called Bit Source and hired 10 laid-off coal miners to come join his team. Justice also notes the immense industry change saying, “We’re not shipping coal out of here anymore; we’re shipping code. The broadband’s our highway, our shipping lanes, our trains” (NPR).
Coal and coal jobs are dying, regardless of any current or future policy decisions. It simply is not economic stacked up against natural gas. Gary Bentley, a former coal miner born and raised in a small mining town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, gives a succinct, revealing statement: “the way to get former miners to continue to make their own dollars is to give them new economic opportunities, not to try to resuscitate the coal industry” (Marketplace).
Are there better ways to transition these coal miners to other positions? What industries would be best suited to accept these workers? In today’s environment, how can you balance advocating for the phasing out coal while also being an advocate for its workers? How much responsibility should be placed on private businesses versus the government to transition these workers?
The Decline of Coal
Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/state/
The Decline of Coal Miners
U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/owcp/dcmwc/powergrants.htm
WorkForce West Virginia. http://workforcewv.org/job-seekers/training/laid-off-coal-miners.html