Coal country is in free fall and is pleading for help from Washington. That’s why the largest union in one of the dirtiest industries is broadly backing President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion green infrastructure package – an ambitious plan that has also won support from climate activists.
“Anybody who would not accept jobs where jobs are desperately needed is making a horrendous mistake,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, the country’s largest mine workers union, told CNN Business on Tuesday.
“We’re for infrastructure. We’re for jobs. We’re for moving manufacturing into coalfields. We’ll work the president on that,” said Roberts, who has known Biden for decades.
Climate groups largely support Biden’s infrastructure plan, although some argue it should go further to respond to the climate crisis.
The coal industry would benefit from the Biden proposals to rebuild bridges, ports and airports – all steps that would boost demand for steel, which typically uses coal as a key ingredient. The infrastructure plan also calls for expanding access to broadband in rural areas like Appalachia.
Roughly half of the coal jobs in America have disappeared since the end of 2011, a staggering blow to Appalachia. Much of those losses were driven by the abundance of cheap natural gas. Now the industry is losing ground to solar, wind and renewable energy.
After four years of former President Donald Trump trying and failing to revive coal country, there is now an acknowledgement within the industry that more pain is coming – and new ideas are needed to blunt the damage.
“We’re coming to grips with the fact that we might lose more jobs here,” Roberts said. “We’re recognizing that change is coming fairly rapidly here.”
Carbon capture is a ‘lifesaver’ for coal
However, the support from the 131-year-old union hinges on aid from Washington to help preserve the coal industry’s dwindling workforce. Specifically, Roberts stressed the importance of investing mightily in carbon capture and storage, a breakthrough technology that injects carbon dioxide deep underground before it can warm the planet.
“If carbon capture is utilized to protect the coal industry for as long as the marketplace will bear, then the overall goal of the jobs plan is good,” Roberts said.
Yet the American Jobs Plan calls for establishing ten pioneer facilities to demonstrate carbon capture retrofit, accelerating carbon capture deployment and making it easier to retrofit existing power plants. The Biden plan also proposes $15 billion in demonstration projects for climate research and development priorities, including carbon capture and storage.
350.org, an environmental group, said in a statement last month “we are disappointed with the investment in carbon capture projects that will only keep dirty power plants running.”
“To us, that’s a lifesaver,” Roberts said of carbon capture investments.
The International Energy Agency issued a “dire warning” Tuesday that detailed how the economic recovery from the pandemic is being powered in part by coal – putting carbon emissions from energy use on track for their second largest increase in history.
‘Change is coming, whether we seek it or not’
On Monday the United Mine Workers of America released a document, titled “Preserving Coal Country,” that lays out the union’s principles for an energy transition built around three objectives: preserving coal jobs, creating new jobs and preserving coalfield families and communities.
Instead of fighting the shift to clean energy, the union suggests workers should benefit from the transformation by helping to build green technology.
Specifically, the document calls for significantly expanding tax incentives designed to build out renewable supply chain manufacturing (such as making solar panels and wind turbines) in coalfield regions and provide a hiring preference for dislocated miners and their families.
“We welcome any manufacturing jobs that can be brought to the coalfields because they are desperately needed,” Roberts.
The document calls for substantial funding to help coal workers, including national training programs for dislocated miners and support to replace their wagers, healthcare and pensions.
“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” the union document said. “Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer.”
Biden’s infrastructure plan also calls for hiring hundreds of thousands of workers to clean up abandoned coal mines and plug countless oil and gas wells.
Roberts said the union “obviously” supports such efforts – though he stressed that these are temporary, not permanent, jobs.
Competing with China
The union is calling for building out carbon capture infrastructure, including pipelines and injection wells that can be used to trap and store harmful emissions.
Roberts warned Washington to approach carbon capture as it did the space race – a battle between nations for the next generation of technology.
“Somebody, a country, a corporation or investors, will develop this technology and will be sitting in a very advantageous position,” Roberts said. “If we concede this to China, it will be a horrendous mistake on the behalf of the United States.”
The union boss stressed that the organization’s broad support for Biden’s infrastructure package is not set in stone and could be reversed if support for carbon capture and investment in coal communities fades.
“This is like negotiating a contract. We’re not going to be rolled over here by anybody,” Roberts said.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm vowed last month that no worker will be left behind in the clean energy revolution.
“We want to be part of the solution,” Roberts said, “not part of the problem.”