In my ongoing series looking at the decline of the coal industry, we come to maybe the most painful stage of grief: depression. It’s also the most personal. I can only imagine how someone like my brother, a coal miner, must feel facing an uncertain future and seeing layoffs all around.
In this post we’ll take a look at how job losses in the industry have affected communities around Appalachia, and we will point toward some positive steps forward, toward the final stage: acceptance and hope for a better future.
The coal mining industry in Appalachia has shed jobs over the past few years, no question. In my home state of West Virginia the average number of coal miners fell from 22,786 in 2012, to 20,281 in 2013, the most recent year that the Energy Information Administration has released data. In Kentucky over the same period, employment fell from 16,381 to 12,905. Those numbers are consistent with a trend that started decades ago, and that trend has almost certainly continued to decline in 2014 and into 2015, with new rounds of layoffs being announced all the time.
Making matters worse is that many of the places where these job losses are occurring are in areas where not many other jobs exist. We are talking about places where people have been mining coal for generations. And when the coal company picks up and leaves town, its legacy is often degraded land and water resources and abandoned buildings.
Operators vs. miners
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the many media reports I’ve read and linked to in this series. Many writers are referring to coal companies as miners, for example, as in “Coal Miner Alpha Natural Resources released a statement….” It’s disturbing to me because there’s a huge difference between the people who run the companies and the people who actually dig the coal; conflating the two, while possibly making for good prose, does a huge disservice to a rich labor history.
While most of this series has focused on company earnings, financial stability, public statements, and the like, it’s pretty hard to find statements from company representatives that illustrate the depression stage. Maybe that’s because they have good PR folks, or because they’re mostly still a stage or two back. Or it could be because it’s probably safe to assume that most coal company executives have golden parachutes that will save them from the inevitable fallout.
But what about the miners and their communities?
As a nation, I believe, we have a collective responsibility to invest in the communities and workers who have sacrificed greatly for the greater wealth of our nation. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the Good Jobs Green Jobs conference in April 2015 sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance, gave an impassioned speech calling on us all to take responsibility for helping these communities:
“For the last 150 years, the people in coal mining regions of America have made considerable sacrifices and commitments—sacrifices of their health and their well-being—to spur the Industrial Revolution and to sustain our economic growth. And they did it. They did before we became aware of the consequences of pollution generated by this form of energy.
“And now that we’re transitioning away to new cleaner energy, a new cleaner energy economy, we can’t leave them behind. Just as they never left us behind.”
And the Veep correctly highlighted the market forces helping drive this transition:
“All this matters because the market is proving a simple fact: Companies are pricing carbon as a cost of doing business across the board. If we didn’t have a single regulation, the days of coal are fundamentally changing. Because it’s no longer cost effective. It’s a simple fact that reality has a way of intruding. And the reality of the day is market forces … are intruding on the way we generate electricity and energy in this country.”
I was lucky enough to see the vice president in person, and it was truly inspiring. Check out the video of his remarks.
As we collectively begin to accept the new reality facing the coal industry, I hope we can envision and create a brighter future for coal miners, their families, and their communities. Acceptance is not enough—we must move beyond that, to hope.
The vice president highlighted a new administration proposal, called POWER Plus, for investing in Appalachian communities in his remarks in April. Ideas abound. Elected officials from around the region seem slow to come around to this new reality. But some West Virginia communities aren’t waiting, and instead are banding together to go solar.
Coming from a coal mining family from a coal state, I think the important thing is that we have to imagine ourselves as more than just coal. Coal has a storied and rich history, one that we can in many ways be proud of. But it is not our future. We have to build something new. Let’s get started.