Job Alternatives for Coal Miners

If you ask a coal miner about the “War on Coal” chances are you’ll get an earful about the EPA, President Obama, and all the environmentalists who don’t care about coal miners and their families. You’ll probably hear about coal being all there is in an area where there is no other alternatives to make a good living wage.All politics aside, one has to realize they are absolutely right. Coal is all there is in Appalachia unless you count a job in a call center making a quarter of the wage or living in the ranks of the working poor for a local grocery store, fast food joint, or Wal-Mart.

There are many reasons coal jobs are still the only well paying jobs in Appalachia at the moment, and while I could take this post down the paths of the how and why (taking into account decades of political corruption),  in the end it doesn’t matter a damn bit. The fact is, coal miners are losing their jobs left and right and they are facing some very tough times.

Local non-profits know this. Since the beginning they have kept coal miner’s jobs in mind, but much of the time it seems as though folks just want to push wind and solar energy. Yes solar and wind would provide some jobs, and yes they would provide energy that doesn’t level the Appalachian mountains, but it seems people keep forgetting that the reason we are in the shape we are in is because people are using to damn much energy. Solar and wind will never replace coal or natural gas in the short term, but using less energy so we don’t have to use fossil fuels will put a huge dent in a growing problem. Elizabeth Crow of the KEF put is as plainly as possible. Energy efficiency needs to be our first fuel as we go forward towards looking into energy alternatives.

We are wasteful of our energy, damn wasteful. I’m not saying anything new here either. We all know that most houses in this nation are not built to conserve energy. We all know that businesses waste sickening amounts of energy to draw customers in and push products that take to much energy to make and transport. I don’t think anyone will argue with me that we are simply wasting to much energy on needless things, wasting energy in a way that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. All you have to do is think about it in the grand scheme of things.

There have been a lot of good folks out there working hard to get their ideas on energy efficiency heard, like the folks at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. I don’t want to steal the credit, but I do want to expand on just how easy (or hard) it is to put coal miners into a different job that could pay potentially as much as they already make, or at least a wage that you can live comfortably on.

First, a little back story.

While I was working as commercial electrician installing energy efficiency lighting in a middle school renovation project, I began a discussion with my co-worker. We talked about how time consuming it was to install energy efficient devices, and if it were to catch on, how it would not only create job security for current electricians, but that it would also bring in thousands more jobs in ours and other skilled trades.
California dedicates money to school energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency technology has come such a long way it would take tens of thousands of skilled trade workers from HVAC to plumbing and electrical, years upon years to upgrade public buildings, businesses, and homes to become more energy efficient. Not only would it give people good steady jobs outside of the coal mines–it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, satisfy many environmental concerns, and even give us that national energy security everyone keeps talking about.

But hold on just a minute…if it is such a great idea, then why isn’t it happening? For that, we have to look at who doesn’t want energy efficiency. Let’s put ourselves in the high priced Italian leather shoes of a coal company CEO. If people become more efficient, no one needs as much electricity. If no one needs to use as much electricity then the power companies don’t need to produce as much electricity. If the power companies don’t need to produce as much electricity then they don’t need to buy as much coal. Oh crap…there goes the quarterly statement, my multi-million dollar bonuses, the Bentley, The Rolls, the vacations to Europe, the corporate jet….

The problem is the folks who make the most money from selling more energy don’t want to see a drop in their profits. Energy efficiency means less coal, oil, and natural gas has to be extracted and that means the companies who make their money of selling those fuels will lose money. It also means that politicians who depend on their campaign funds to be filled with contributions from the fossil fuel industry’s would potentially lose their cushy jobs at the state capitols or even Washington, DC. 

That’s the first problem. The second problem is, “Where will we get all the money to pay for all these new energy efficiency systems, pay to retrain coal miners, and then pay them a good wage to install them.” My answer for that–the same damn place that AIG and the automotive industry got their trillion dollars of bailout money. The same place that funds a multi-trillion dollar decade long war. Our government seems to have money coming out the ears to give to the big boys, so what about spending that on upgrading our infrastructure while paying coal miners to do the work. We can even start out small.

With the amount of coal severance tax money that is paid out, every coal miner could be pulled out of the mines and retrained in a well paying trade and be put on a fast track to becoming licensed in the
field of their choice. I think a few hundred millions could do that don’t you? The government could put them to work installing upgrades on public buildings to start out with and help to expand businesses into the commercial and residential areas through grants and incentive programs to install energy efficient upgrades.

There’s so much room for opportunity here. These new businesses of re-tooled coal miners could even be started as co-ops,  companies that are employee owned in which everyone makes the decisions and everyone gets their far share of the total profit, instead of it all going to a bunch of uppity CEOs and shareholders.

Is it a miracle plan that can pay coal miners the same $50,000+ right out of the gate…no. The other side of the coin is that coal miners are going to have to settle on the idea that they will not keep making $50,000+ a year at first. There will be an adjustment period. The first thing that needs to be done is that they must lower and eliminate their debts and start putting money back. Yes, that means giving up a lot of those wonderful toys, but it’s something that needs to be done anyway, because Obama and the EPA or no, the coal industry will still lay off thousands if it means CEOs and VPs saving their own skins. It’s the way the coal industry has always operated–nothing has changed.

So the choice falls upon the shoulders of coal miners and their families. The system that has kept coal king is not going to just disappear; ole king coal ain’t going to have a change of heart and send everyone to trade school and start an employee owned business so that people can make a decent living doing good work. It’s going to take the same hard work and guts it takes to go into that hole every day to dig coal–its going to take people wanting something better for their children and it’s going to take fighting the government and the powerful companies  to take back our Appalachia.

For more information check out these sites:

Appalachian Transition

Mountain Association for Community Economic Development

5 thoughts on “Job Alternatives for Coal Miners

  1. I just wanted to correct your statement about wind and solar energy never being able to provide us with enough energy. Studies from Stanford University and the University of California at Davis show that land-based wind, water power, and solar potential exceed all global energy consumption needs.


  2. Hello.

    I’ve read with interest about The Thoughtful Coal Miner and Nick Mullins in YES! Magazine. And about “the Appalachian Transition [that] will require creativity and a willingness to work together through partnerships, and across lines that we don’t normally cross. It will take different ideas, voices and bold leadership.”

    In this vein (as it were), I’d like to share an idea for a very unique and fun project that could attract many visitors from beyond
    — as well as from within — the Appalachian region, and generate many potentially creative and interesting new non-coal jobs in Coal Country while creating a lot of creative fun: An Appalachian Theme Park within a Played-out MTR Coal Mine.

    The variegated topography of an inactive MTR coal mine could become the site of a spectacular and unique new Appalachian theme park — some creative combination of (for example) multi-level terrain park, performance and concert setting, futuristic theme-park strangescape, festival and marketplace, and/or gothic halloweenland — a labyrinthine spaghetti skein of gravity tubes, slides, chutes and flumes.

    The multiple levels and strange contours of a mountaintopped coal mine — preferably one accessible from a major cross-state interstate highway to minimize new environmental intrusion — could be the literal basis of a one-of-a-kind fun spot and tourist attraction that creates a variety of good jobs for the West Virginians, Kentuckians, Tennesseans, Pennsylvanians, and others who collaborate to design, build, and operate it.

    Sort of from played-out to party-down.

    The space might even become the physical setting of a complex multi-level online game — paired with an online virtual environment with precisely the same topography and spaces for simultaneous coordinated real-world and online multi-player interaction.

    The process of conceptualizing and designing this could be a compelling region-wide (and beyond) creative participatory activity.

    The subterranean Mega Cave in Louisville might be a bit of a model for such a theme development.

    If something like this is designed and created over the next decade, I imagine the opening day will be carried on every television and digital network in existence, and the patronage will be strong from there on.

    Has anything like this been proposed for one of the more variegated MTR mine environments? Is this a concept that could be a part of the future of Appalachia?

    I’m curious. Any thoughts will be received with interest!

    Gregory Wright in Sherman Oaks, California


  3. I visited Island Creek several years ago mostly as an environmentalist and was surprised at the feeling that welled up inside me when meeting the folks there. I came away wanting to know what can be done for the people of Appalachia foremost. I don’t know where your idea has gone, but I like the idea of making homes more energy efficient and training for electricians, insulators, construction, building energy audits, …). I would guess that the average home could cut back energy use by 1/4 through conservation (LED ballast bypass, duct work, passive solar, …). And what about Gregory Wright’s post of April 16 on theme parks – zip lines and bungee jumping parks seem to be all the rage.


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