Misdirected Anger on Full Display in the Purported "War on Coal" — King Coal’s Stages of Grief, Part 3

July 17, 2015 | 3:24 pm
Jeremy Richardson
Former UCS Fellow & Energy Analyst

In my previous post in this series, I wrote about how coal has become uneconomic—and how that has led to great financial risk for companies in the coal mining business. I noted that some analysts are predicting a wave of bankruptcies in the industry. As reported last month, the industry’s market value has fallen by half in less than a year. On Wednesday Alabama-based Walter Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Alpha Natural Resources is now in bankruptcy talks as well.

These events are having and will continue to have real world impacts on the folks employed at these companies. Which leads me to the second stage of grief: anger.


This post is the third in a series on King Coal’s Stages of Grief: Facing a Changing Future.

Anger at what?

Anger is evident everywhere you go in Coal Country. And it’s understandable—the communities hardest hit by these job losses are the least able to adapt to the changes, simply because there’s not a lot to fall back on. Coal mining has been the backbone of these communities for generations.

But let’s make an important distinction—between owner-operators who have gotten rich for generations, and the workers who make them rich by digging coal.

You can see the tension as the mining company bankruptcies play out. Patriot Coal tried unsuccessfully in its first bankruptcy to avoid obligations for retiree health benefits. In Patriot’s second bankruptcy only 18 months later—which portended the coming wave—executive bonuses aren’t being disclosed. Executives seem to get bonuses no matter how well their companies are doing.

The problem is that the industry has largely directed public anger around these real world impacts (layoffs) toward the Obama Administration’s EPA through a coordinated and relentless public relations campaign.

The purported “war on coal”

It pains me to watch how this “War on Coal” mantra has dominated the conversation around coal in recent years. The rhetoric seems to be increasing from shrill to apoplectic. Politicians are evidently in an arms race of sorts to produce the most shocking, “sky is falling” press releases, op-eds, and sound bites. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a case in point.

Even in the face of proposed initiatives that would actually support these communities, they criticize environmental regulations or worse (and inexplicably) reject the ideas outright.

Look, it’s true that additional environmental regulations affect the economics of coal production—but as I’ve discussed in detail, as have many other commentators, the industry faces strong and more dominant headwinds on a number of fronts. (Also, it’s worth emphasizing that environmental regulations are designed to force the coal industry to clean up its act, and begin to pay for all those externalities I mentioned before.)

When people say “War on Coal,” they usually mean that somehow the industry’s troubles and job losses can be blamed entirely on President Obama, and that once there is a new occupant in the White House, King Coal can return to its glory days. It simply isn’t true.

The story of coal’s decline

If there’s a “War on Coal” underway, it began a long time ago. Since the mid-20th century, direct employment in coal mines has declined dramatically, while production has continued to increase. There are two big reasons for this—the advent of longwall mining (greater mechanization) and the boom in strip mining, both of which require vastly fewer workers than traditional forms of mining.

This history—and the other factors helping drive the decline in employment—seems to get lost in all the rhetoric.

Is a civil conversation possible?

As Ken Ward thoughtfully points out over at Coal Tattoo, an actual war would involve people shooting at each other, so we really ought to call it something else. In this toxic political environment, and on a topic that brings up so many emotions on both sides, I often wonder if it’s even possible to have a civil and intelligent public discourse.

I sure hope so, because the future of coal communities like the one where I grew up depends on finding solutions. That means we’ve got to get past our anger over the situation (and at each other) and learn how to work together.

Up next in blog series, the next stage of grief: bargaining.