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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Congress Considers Federal Assistance For Laid-Off Coal Miners

A major coal mining company has announced another round of layoffs as declining demand for coal continues to depress the industry.

Alpha Natural Resources, the world’s third largest supplier of metallurgical coal, said Sept. 26 that it would be shuttering three mines in West Virginia due to “sustained weak market conditions and government regulations challenging the Central Appalachian mining industry.”

The closures will put 261 people out of work. The news has a familiar refrain; more than 20,000 coal miners have lost their jobs since 2011.

But coal mining jobs have been disappearing for more than 30 years. As of March 2014, there were around 79,000 jobs in coal mining in the United States, 8.3 percent fewer than a year earlier.

Related: U.S. Senator Calls For Suspension Of Coal Leases

Compare that to the solar industry, which employs around 143,000 people, according the Solar Energy Industries Association.  

The fortunes of the two energy industries will only diverge further in coming years. Sadly, many political leaders in coal producing states have not planned for a future without coal. Instead of recognizing that the coal industry is facing inexorable decline, politicians in coal states like West Virginia and Kentucky mislead residents of their state into thinking that the situation could turn around if certain Environmental Protection Agency regulations are repealed.

There is a bit of hope, though. Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) have introduced a bill in Congress to help out-of-work coal miners find employment in other industries.

The bill calls for the formation of a federal program similar to the Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides job training, income support, and subsidies for U.S. workers affected by foreign trade. Coal miners who lose their jobs as a result of the industry downturn would be eligible for federal assistance.

The U.S. Department of Labor has already provided a bit of relief for struggling coal communities. For example, in June 2014, the agency announced a $7.5 million grant to workers in eastern Kentucky who were laid off when mines were closed. The money is important, but is a drop in the bucket for what is needed.

The bill proposed by McKinley and Welch would provide a year’s worth of benefits, including training and support for relocation. “Across West Virginia communities are being decimated by what’s happening to the coal industry,” McKinley said in a statement. “Coal miners and other workers are being hurt by factors beyond their control, whether it’s regulations or market forces. It’s only fair we do something to help these struggling families. This legislation represents a bipartisan effort to move beyond our differences and offer help to the proud men and women of the coal industry who are out of work.”

For a state that will experience a sustained period of economic hardship from an increasing rate of coal mine closures, it is welcome news that one of West Virginia’s elected officials is making a push to help displaced workers.

Related: This Brand New Coal-Producing Nation to Start 2015

The legislation also offers a potential blueprint for a broader effort aimed at accelerating a long-term transition to cleaner energy. Much of the resistance in Congress to legislation calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions comes from politicians in states that produce fossil fuels.

Obviously, opposition to action on climate change goes much deeper than fears over displaced workers, but creating a more robust transition assistance program that provides support for people that lost work in coal mines -- or on oil and natural gas rigs -- would smooth out the rough edges of a climate bill. If offered in tandem with requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of the economic repercussions of enacting steeper costs on fossil fuels could be minimized.

To be sure, the McKinley-Welch bill almost certainly won’t increase the chances of legislation on climate change. Still, providing assistance for workers of a dying industry is the right thing to do.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Tim Bilsky on October 02 2014 said:
    The government, and more specifically, the President and the EPA are killing the coal industry, and then they "rush in" to try and act like they care about those whose jobs they've caused to be taken away. How magnanimous! Why do authors on this site like you, Mr. Cunningham, keep omitting the truth? Tell me there aren't far more regulations and mandates on the industry than in 2007. I'll laugh and call you a liar. Tell me those same decrees are based on some wholly agreed scientific truth - which man-made climate change is certainly not - and I will again point to your untruthful reporting. Your entire premise is based on unproven myth about resources and their relationship to the climate, which there is no consensus on. The more I read articles on oilprice.com, the more it seems it is an arm of the Democrat Party and its agenda on shutting down energy to allow government to gain control. I want to see articles that show proof of this man-made climate change and its supposedly disastrous effects. You can't produce that so please tread carefully before spouting off on how great solar is. Oh, and how much government money does the solar industry receive compared to the coal industry? That's what I thought. Artificial employment and growth.
  • presk eel pundit on October 02 2014 said:
    Nearly 40% of the 143,000 solar industry jobs are installers. If the article used similar parameters to define coal jobs based on the percentage of coal used in power generation, and included workers in the electric utility industry, furnace manufacturers and installers, how many total jobs would be in the coal mining numbers?
  • Tim Bilsky on October 02 2014 said:
    Thank you, pundit. That is a fine question. I don't know the answer, but I'd be interested to find out. Perhaps Mr. Cunningham can find that information.

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