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Mine Workers’ Leader Wants To Save Last Coal Jobs As Biden Tackles Climate

Jeff Young
Ohio Valley Resource

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said he’s been hearing the term “just transition” tossed around for more than 20 years as part of the long-running, nearly Sisyphean discussion about climate change, clean energy, and coal country. Simply put: he’s not a fan.


“I ask anybody who has been uttering those two words over the last 30 years — point to one, one ‘just transition’ in this country,” Roberts challenged. “And you can't.” 


The West Virginia native is the UMWA’s second-longest serving leader, behind only the legendary John L. Lewis. But unlike Lewis, who served during the coal industry and union’s height of power and influence, Roberts’ tenure coincides with an epic decline in coal production and employment in the U.S., and now, what could be the closing chapter for coal. 


Coal employment has dropped by more than half in the past decade. More than 60 mining companies have declared bankruptcy, coal-fired power power plants are closing ahead of schedule, and the number of hourly coal workers is now at the lowest point since the government began tracking such numbers.


Now, a Democratic president who has organized labor’s support is pressing ahead with an ambitious clean energy agenda to combat climate change. At a “climate change summit” this week, timed to coincide with Earth Day, President Joe Biden is expected to announce a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Roberts fears that could bring an end to the remaining 44,100 or so coal mining jobs. 


The administration has pledged to invest in coal communities as it reduces fossil fuel dependence. “We have to act on climate change,” White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy pledged in a March interview with the Ohio Valley ReSource, “but we also have to act to make sure that there's no worker and no community left behind.” 


Roberts is not persuaded. 


“It's one thing to want these things to happen, but it's another thing for those things to materialize,” he said. “People in Appalachia believe that there'll be the second coming of the Lord before they see a ‘just transition,’” he said.


So Roberts is using the leverage he has — including a close relationship with his fellow West Virginian, Sen. Joe Manchin — in order to sway Biden’s policies to allow room for coal and win support for coal communities.   


In a joint appearance with Manchin on Monday, Roberts laid out broad principlesthat he thinks should be included in the administration’s climate and energy policy, including robust support for the controversial technology known as carbon capture and sequestration, targeted tax credits and loans for coal country jobs, and additional support for displaced miners. 


In a broad-ranging interview with the ReSource, Roberts made clear that he is not a climate change denier or skeptic, and he supports many of Biden’s plans for infrastructure and renewable energy. But Roberts also made clear that coal communities in Appalachia have sacrificed enough.


“I think it would be a travesty, and we won't support the elimination of the jobs that we still have,” he said.


His union’s stance, coupled with Manchin’s position as the potentially decisive vote in the evenly divided Senate, could become a challenge for the Biden administration’s attempt to act on the climate crisis.


Technological Gamble


“People might say, well, the UMWA is being awfully bold here proposing ideas to the president of the United States,” Roberts said. “But I don't think it's all that bold given the fact that there's a long record here of sacrifice from coal miners in this nation, whether it's the number of miners that've been killed, or the number of miners that have died from black lung, just to make this country great. There's just no other group of workers that have contributed that much to this nation's economy.”


Roberts is resting his argument, in part, on the historic price that miners, their communities, land, and water have paid in order to power the country. He matches that regional history with a global argument about the nature of climate change: ending coal use and its carbon emissions in the U.S. will mean little if international appetite for coal and its emissions continue apace.


You can hear the full interview with Cecil Roberts on the next episode of the ReSource podcast, "Welcome to AppalachAmerica." Article continues below.


Credit AppalachAmerica

While the coal industry is collapsing in the U.S., coal shows little signs of slowing in other parts of the world, especially China. A recent projection from the International Energy Agency, for example, shows a 4% increase in China’s coal consumption is likely this year, pushing CO2 emissions upward as the pandemic pause in electricity demand lifts.  


This is where Roberts makes a pitch for a technology that many people in the climate change debate have given up on: carbon capture and storage, or CCS.


CCS uses advanced chemistry to strip the CO2 from the smokestacks of a power plant or manufacturing facility, then stores it in the earth — at least, theoretically. The technology, sometimes called “clean coal” by industry boosters, has been a talking point for decades, and the federal government has put hundreds of millions into its research and development. But there have been very few commercial scale applications, largely due to the prohibitive costs. 


Roberts cites United Nations reports that encourage further development of CCS, and the past support for the technology from President Biden’s former boss. 


“I can shut my eyes and still see Senator Barack Obama, campaigning for the presidency of the United States in Lebanon, Virginia,” Roberts said. He recalled speaking to a packed house just before Obama, who badly wanted to win over enough voters in the western coal counties of Virginia to win the swing state. 


“So he knows he's in coal country, and he knows that people are worried about their future. And he makes a great speech. And he says, ‘if we can find a way to put a man on the moon, we can find a way to burn coal cleanly,’” Roberts recalled. “And here's the reality of the situation. Does anybody really believe that it's impossible to find a way to burn coal cleanly? We can, we just haven't decided that it's worth the investment.”


The UMWA’s position paper asks to “significantly enhance” funding for CCS with a goal of a “utility-scale coal-fired” project by 2030. It also recommends 5-year waivers from any zero-carbon mandates for “coal-fired utility units that commit to installing CCS.”


Credit Emily Allen / WVPB
UMWA President Cecil Roberts speaks at the UMWA Labor Day picnic.

Coal Community Support


The UMWA is also calling for more support for miners who have lost jobs and more ways to grow new jobs in coal-dependent communities. 


That includes full funding of the federal Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation program, something the Biden administration has identified as a potential jobs generator, and provisions that the associated jobs will have a prevailing wage standard. 


The union also wants a “significant” expansion of tax incentives for “renewable supply-chain

manufacturing” in coal areas, with hiring preference given to dislocated miners

and their families.


Roberts said he’s not against renewable energy, but he is bothered by the low wages and imported goods often associated with wind and solar power.


“Right now, almost all these renewable energy jobs don't pay enough to support a family,” he said. “They are nowhere near the wages that a coal miner makes.”


In their (virtual) joint appearance Monday at the National Press Club both Roberts and Manchin said renewable energy incentives should be targeted to coal states and other fossil fuel producing regions to make up for the anticipated losses from an aggressive clean energy policy. And both criticized the renewable industry’s dependence on importing cheaper parts from China.  


We're propping up their economy with some of the things that we have done here,” Roberts said. “So let's produce those wind turbines here. Let's produce those solar panels here. Let's make them good union jobs while we're at it. By the way, that's not too outrageous, because it’s a part of Biden's plan.”


ReSource managing editor Jeff Young has reported from Appalachian coalfields, Capitol Hill, and New England’s coast, among other places. Jeff worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and was Washington correspondent for the nationally distributed program Living on Earth. Recently, he directed communications for ocean conservation with The Pew Charitable Trusts in Boston. Jeff grew up near Huntington, West Virginia, and studied journalism and biology at Marshall University and the University of Charleston. His reporting has been recognized with numerous awards and he was named a 2012 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University.
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