Obama Has Killed Coal

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When it comes to money and power, nothing is cut and dry, and it never seems to be in the interest of the working people. When I kept seeing signs and billboards pointing out specific politicians and agencies for the woes of the Appalachian coal miner, I felt as if someone was wanting me to think a certain way. One thing led to another, and I began to unravel the over simplified into a more complex understanding of the “War on Coal.”

How hard would it be to believe that the power companies, the coal companies, and the natural gas (i.e. oil) companies, all sat down to discuss our nation’s energy future?

The natural gas industry, who is heavily connected to the oil industry, know they have a product that is cleaner than coal. The power companies know they have aging coal fired power plants, and that natural gas plants are cheaper to build without massive smoke stacks, scrubbers, coal ash impoundments, and everything else that is needed to make burning coal “clean.”

The coal industry knows there is not much coal left in Appalachia. What is there is too deep and expensive to mine and still make a decent profit. Their best alternative is to decrease labor costs by using heavy machinery and explosives to surface mine the remaining recoverable coal reserves (i.e. mechanization).

The problem for both industries is that natural gas exploration and surface mining for coal are detrimental to the environment and therefor the local people. The industries needed a way to manipulate local communities so they would dismiss any possible connections between health issues and extraction, while building larger public support for industry business goals.

The natural gas industry works with democratic politicians to enact new environmental regulations making coal more expensive to mine and burn. Due to the nation’s latent dependency on coal for cheap electrical generation, the new regulations drive up electrical rates, thereby creating public support for an alternative energy source to keep rates low—natural gas. This public support makes it easier for republicans to work with and provide subsidies for further natural gas development, gutting environmental regulations that would hinder hydraulic fracturing, as well as opening up public lands for drilling (see the Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the Bush Administration).

In the coalfields, coal markets get squeezed and workers in the industry are laid off. Coalfield conservatives then begin their “War on Coal” propaganda. The coal companies put  money into public relations campaigns like “Friends of Coal” with the intent of getting coal mining communities to fight regulations. Through using words like “over regulation,”  “War on Coal,” and “Outside Treehuggers,” as well as co-opting Appalachian culture, history, and our pride in  working hard to support our families, the industry is able to manipulate people into a fighting against a “threat” to their livelihoods and even their identity as Appalachians (See Coalfield Economic Identity, Bell and York). This leads to a “pro-coal” movement in local mining communities that completely ignores information about the actual water issues and cancer rate increases from coal mining. Locals even start ignoring one hundred of years of labor history in which coal companies exploited, abused, and killed coal miners and their families.

Not only do the coal companies get the benefit of having entire communities standing up to fight their battles while turning a blind eye to the health impacts—the fear of job loss among miners pushes production through the roof. After having broken all the unions, miners have no protection or rights. Fearful of “performance” based layoffs, miners are willing to work mandatory overtime to stay in the good graces of their employers. The companies also enforce strict safety policies, threatening employees with termination if they are caught taking shortcuts in safety, while simultaneously pushing production goals that are unachievable through safe mining practices (see the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster). Within an economical depressed area, miners do what they believe is necessary to keep their jobs to support their families, all of which equates to higher profits for the coal companies.

The “War on Coal,” and the fear it generates, also buffers coal company officials from public outrage as they file for bankruptcy. They are able to remove all health benefits from pensioners,  playing it off as a necessity to continue providing jobs in tough markets. They even get by with paying out multi-million dollar “retention” bonuses to their CEOs with very few people questioning it (see bankruptcy filings for Peabody, Patriot, Arch, and Alpha Natural Resources).

Everyone gets the benefits except the workers. The natural gas companies, the power companies, the coal companies, the banks and stock holders, and politicians—on both sides—all get what they want. Even local banks in the coalfields get to cash in on all the repossessions from out of work coal miners—families who went into to debt thinking they could keep coal alive if they worked harder and fought the regulations.

Billions of dollars of coal have left Appalachia in just the last decade, and little to nothing has been done to bring in job alternatives, build up infrastructure, or address faltering education systems. Instead, coal companies and politicians continue giving everyone “Friends of Coal” stickers, continue selling license plates, while failing to mention how, even at the peak of coal production, coal producing areas in Central Appalachia remained among the poorest, most economically depressed areas in the nation with some of the worst health outcomes (see Hal Roger’s congressional district ranked as the unhealthiest district in the nation).

This is Free Market 101. Just as corporations worked towards trade policies that have allowed them to ship their manufacturing overseas  where they could exploit laborers and tax laws, companies work to manipulate laws, regulations, and public opinion in the United States. There are industry associations, chambers of commerce, judges, politicians, law firms, and media professionals  who create and manipulate information in ways that keep people at odds and ignorant of the bigger picture.

In the end, what do we have? Mortgages, bills, children to feed and cloth, and no time to think about the truth of the situation.

10 thoughts on “Obama Has Killed Coal

  1. I grew up in southeastern Kentucky; my father, my grandfathers, and most of their their fathers and grandfathers were coal miners. Dad saved my brothers and I from having to go underground when we moved to another state.
    I grieve for what has happened and continues to happen to my home and my people because of coal. But then, to be fair, coal — a rock, a mineral in the ground — can’t be blamed for the destruction. It is the unscrupulous, greedy men, the mine operators enriching themselves at our expense, who are responsible for this evil.
    Nick, I so appreciate your words exposing this industry that is so destructive to everything that I care about. You are an excellent blogger, a compassionate human being, but you are also a veritable prophet crying out in the wilderness. Your truth is so compelling that if this were 60 years ago, I might fear for your safety from those company hired mercenaries.
    Thank you and bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your treatise here, and I agree with you on much of it, but it’s the liberal politicians who are suffering from these charges, rather than benefitting because liberalism is attached to global climate change. The conservatives, who never showed an iota of interest in hardworking blue collar men and women, are playing a role they’ve never played before, as trying to protect the coal miner’s jobs, when we know they are just protecting their wealthy energy industry contributors. These are the same people who want “right to work” laws and circumvent the worker’s right to negotiate and organize.

    I do support your theory, though, and I am glad I have just discovered your blog. Keep up the good work!

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  3. How tragic for the people of West Virginia that we have allowed both the coal industry and our political leaders to paint our state into this economic corner. They have convinced the people that economic diversification simply is not possible. Case in point is the stirring refrain at the end of every coal industry commercial: “COOOAAL is West Virginiaaaaaaa!” Well, coal most certainly OWNS West Virginia, from the people (who do the industry’s advertising for FREE, by way of those “Friends of Coal” stickers on the back of their pickups and SUVs) to the media (who get huge amounts of ad revenue from the coal industry) to the very politicians who are wined and dined and had their campaign pockets lined by the coal industry.

    Of course, there was a time when the coal industry tried to portray their product as the environmentally-friendly fuel of the future. Most people in West Virginia and Kentucky can remember all those old Walker Machinery billboards that read, “Yes, COAL, Clean, carbon-neutral COAL.” The whole idea was that new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could cut greenhouse gas emissions and allow coal to remain the backbone of West Virginia’s economy … which of course it still is. But you don’t see those billboards anymore, because implementing CCS will cause electric bills to go up by 40%. The one CCS pilot project up in the northern panhandle was shut down, and the carbon continues to be sequestered … straight UP into the atmosphere.

    In West Virginia the coal industry employs only about 1/8th the number of miners it did 60 years ago, and that is most certainly NOT because of regulations by the evil government, but because of the profit motive, pure and simple. As underground coal seams become thinner, it has become more cost-effective to blow up mountains, fill in the streams, and sort the coal from the dirt. Fewer miners, more explosives and heavy machinery, huge amounts of coal-washing detergents like MCHM (which gave our drinking water that delightful licorice smell not too long ago), and vast tracts of moonscape utterly unsuitable for commercial development.

    In the next few decades, humankind will need to double, or even triple energy production as billions of people in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty and begin to live modern lives. Unless the source of this new energy is clean and non-CO2 emitting, the risk of triggering a devastating global climate catastrophe is all but certain. We coddled the coal industry, preferring cheap electricity and short-term “prosperity” over long-term environmental protection for future generations. Now we have to deal with the environmental consequences, which are coming back to bite West Virginia on the ass.

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    • Tim Robinson, if someone wants to poison us all with another coal fired plant of ANY kind, they should be forced into bankruptcy. Coal addicts can spout “Clean Coal” lies, and claim it’s about jobs all they want. It’s all a lie, and coal exhaust is poisoning us all. We HAVE to move away from fossil fuels. We do need to take more authority and initiative on the foods we eat. And I know this pisses off the Christians, but we also have to be more responsible about how many children we are having. There are already too damn many people on this planet. Instead of a T.V. show, people like the Duggars should be prosecuted.
      If we keep going the way we are, our grnadchildren won’t be able to live on this planet. The air and water will be unfit, the soil polluted and barren.
      So if Obama was saying he’d bankrupt anyone building a coal plant, I CHEER him whole heartedly.

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  4. I AM SO VERY GLAD TO READ THESE POSTS . I WAS BEGINNING TO THINK NO ONE REALIZED WHAT WAS TRULY GOING ON WITH THE COAL INDUSTRY. I TOO AM A CHILD OF COAL. ALL MY FAMILY WORKED IN THE MINES. MY DAD WENT TO WORK HAULING TIMBERS WHEN HE WAS JUST 8 YEARS OLD. Nothing lasts forever and the reign of King coal is over. West Virginia has been used and abused by the coal barons ever sense the black gold was discovered here. Trying to get people to realize the truth about the industry is so difficult. You have explained it so well. I truly hope people will read and understand. The demise of coal could be a blessing in design for our wonderful state.

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  5. Coal may be dying a death by a thousand cuts, but don’t think for a minute that idiot in the white house isn’t glad to see it happen, and not for noble reasons. Don’t be so quick to lay this all at the feet of republican politicians either, since until very recently both Kentucky and West Virginia were overwhelmingly blue states. I grew up in a coal mining family in Letcher county and had a front row seat to all of it. Even with the coal severance tax in place to ostensibly prepare us for a post-coal economy, we have the republicans fighting to put it into job training programs and the democrats spending it on golf courses and swimming pools on the old strip jobs. Blame lies equally with both. Don’t believe the fools who tell you the democrat and the union rep is for the working man. They are both for the guy that gives him the most money in the back room, just like every other politician

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  6. Thank you for this. My family comes from several generations of coal miners, I’m literally a coal miner’s daughter. “Coal kept the lights on” in my home as a child. It also killed my grandfather, my uncle and my own father, who died from black lung/emphysema/lung cancer.

    I have asked several people to please explain to me what “Obama’s war on coal” even means. No one can reallytell me, but it sounds cool dripping off their narrow focused and despair driven lips. There is no war on coal. There is a heaping amount of concern over dying communities, endangered workers and poisoned water.

    As a midwife in these mountains I serve some of the poorest counties, devistated by the coal industry. All I can do is love this state, my home, and her people with all I have, and pray for a less short sighted focus that will bring resolution to a situation where destruction, poverty and disease are a way of life.

    This is not a third world country. This is the wealthiest country in the western world. It is simply unacceptable.

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