Mining towns need solid facts before show of support

By Editorial Board

Many Republicans have accused President Obama of “waging a war on coal” throughout his time in office because of his efforts to adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change.

However, the president recently acknowledged the green initiatives could hurt job prospects for those who rely on mining work.

The New York Times reported Jan. 15 that Obama aims to stop building new coal plants, close existing plants, limit U.S. investments in plants overseas and ultimately keep coal underground in the future.

Many who work in the coal industry see this initiative as detrimental to their livelihood, but Obama said the government will offer those affected work after the plants have closed.

Not only is the coal industry facing a societal shift in acceptance of older, dirty energy, it is also competing with low natural gas prices that give electric utilities a cheap coal alternative.

According to the New York Times article, six major coal companies declared bankruptcy in as many months, and employment in the coal mining industry is reportedly at a 20-year low with only 64,000 industry jobs.

With the coal industry economically propping up so many towns throughout the U.S., it is understandable that families who have relied on mining work for generations would be hesitant to embrace plans to end coal production or begin training programs to work with clean energy.

Some are worried the transition from coal mining to clean energy may leave people permanently unemployed, as seen in the past with steel towns in the Midwest and tobacco towns in the South. 

As one of the country’s largest employers, the coal industry appeals to some because the work does not require extensive education and pays well.

What may be overlooked by concerned workers, though, is that working in renewable energy would likely offer more stable employment than the finite world of coal.

Historically, the coal industry has also been one of the most dangerous and labor-contentious industries for workers, subjecting people to death, injury and diseases like the infamous black lung disease, so the idea of dismantling it should not be dismissed purely out of fear of the unknown.

According to the New York Times article, a spending bill passed by Congress in December allocated $1 billion of the 2017 budget for programs that would repurpose vacant coal mines for other jobs and industries.

While this is a promising step in the shift forward on clean energy, the president needs to offer workers specific details on the clean energy industry and the nature of future training programs. 

Residents of mining towns cannot be expected to trust an initiative about which they have little to no information.

The New York Times report stated that a study by the Headwaters Economics firm revealed altering the federal coal mining program could boost annual revenue by about $400 million, but mining towns say the added revenue would not cover the losses felt by potentially displaced employees who could get lost in the shuffle.

If plans to move forward with clean energy move too quickly, people who are already struggling financially could become worse off.

They could lose their jobs completely or receive poor training for new jobs.

If this push to renewable resources is going to gain traction, the government needs to  present mining industry workers with a subsidy arrangement to ease the transition into new jobs and foster trust in these plans.