What Would a “War on Coal” Actually Look Like?

By Mike Harman

If you are leaning toward giving the accusations of the West Virginia Coal Association and Chamber of Commerce any weight whatsoever regarding “Obama’s war on coal,” it would be instructive to examine a few facts. First of all, coal sales are down due to a reduced demand for electric power, which may be partly due to a struggling economy, but much more likely due to many customers finding ways to save energy and save money by becoming more energy-efficient. 

Industry and commercial businesses are finding it very cost-effective to lower their energy bills with improvements in lighting, heating, cooling, and refrigeration. Homeowners are finding ways to cut their electric usage by switching to better lighting, newer furnaces, air conditioners and refrigerators. Those newer energy-using devices are much more efficient than the old ones, so they cost much less to run. Some customers are switching to natural gas for home heating and water heating, because it is cheaper than electric heat and creates far less pollution from coal mining and coal burning. Even some utility companies are switching to natural gas instead of coal for power generation.

In fact, in states where there are active programs to help customers save energy and money, the reduction in electric power demand is far outpacing the development of new power generating capacity. We just don’t need more coal-fired power plants. This is just normal market conditions doing its thing. 

So, what’s really behind layoffs scheduled by Alpha mines, as reported in the Charleston Gazette and Daily Mail on August 1? According to Alpha’s own news release, the layoffs are primarily due to “persistently weak market conditions, including an excess supply of coal, weak demand, and depressed prices.” Looming regulations by the EPA may be a concern for the future, but that is not what’s behind the layoffs of over a thousand miners in southern West Virginia. As a famous Democrat once said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” 

Given the coal industry’s tendency to hyperventilate at any opportunity to slam President Obama and the EPA, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen the same hysteria over the years as Americans move to make sense of our economy and system of justice. Looking back historically, a major battle in the war on coal may have been the enactment of the child labor laws that were passed in this country during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. This act of Congress threw thousands of children out of work in the mines and cut deeply into coal company profits. Other coal war battles waged by Congress included the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, the Black Lung Compensation Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, Surface Mine Reclamation Act and the Forty Hour Work Week.

But to bring this a little more up-to-date, coal mining operations are under attack these days by individuals and organizations that are working to stop violations of the law or lack of enforcement of public regulations that are supposed to protect our water, land and air. A group called WildEarth Guardians has filed lawsuits in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico based on evidence that government regulators are not enforcing the law, and have approved mining permits without involving the public. Just in the past five years, WildEarth Guardians has filed dozens of lawsuits and legal petitions against agencies that regulate mining on federal lands. 

But a real war on coal would be something much different. It would entail sabotage against coal mine equipment and operations, such as derailing coal trains, blowing up bridges, blasting train tunnels, that sort of thing. Desperate people might attempt to mess with mine operations in any number of ways. They might take it on themselves to go after coal trucks and coal haulage roads, strip mine bulldozers, Caterpillar machinery suppliers, coal company law firms, or any number of collaborators in partnership with the coal industry. 

People engaged in a war on coal would go after the boards and management of coal companies, their business relations, collaborative financial and accounting firms, sympathetic politicians, and so forth. 

A real war on coal might look a lot like the war fought against mine unionization in West Virginia back in the early 1900s, when your chances of survival in a coal mine were worse than surviving in the military engaged in “real” war. That’s the war that was waged by coal company security forces and federal troops firing on striking miners camped out in tents.

Ten thousand coal miners died from black lung disease in the 10-year period from 1995 to 2004. That’s more than all the American lives lost in the George Bush wars since 2001. If there is a “war” going on in the mining industry, the body count is piling up entirely on the side of the mine workers, not the industry that finances and runs the mines. 

I was very fortunate to have been a customer of our municipally-owned St. Albans Water Company in January when coal cleaning fluid leaked into the Elk River and destroyed the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties, over a period of many weeks. It is only natural that people want to fight back. 

Yes, maybe there actually is a “war on coal.” But if so, it is being waged by thousands, and perhaps millions of Americans who are tired of paying too much for electric power and who manage to see some light at the end of a long, dark, dusty, dank tunnel. 

Almost every day, another depressing news report makes it crystal clear that coal’s long legacy of catastrophic accidents, explosions, dam failures, tank failures, pipe failures, train wrecks, and climate disasters, is still throwing shadows over our lives. We can’t wait another year, another week, or even another day for more of the same. We need to bring this nightmare to an end.

It’s time for the people of this country to take back control over their own destiny. Over the land, the air, the water, the climate, and their elected representatives in government. This is what we call the commons. Nobody owns those things. They rightfully belong to the people who partake of them. I personally am tired of being told it can’t happen, that the coal business is too powerful, that the energy bandits won’t relinquish their grip. We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to take it back. The coal conglomerate has squandered the opportunity to do things right, and they have earned nothing except to have that power taken away.

Note:  This was written in 2014, when the “war on coal” was at its height.  To the extent that there ever was a “war on coal” President Trump declared a truce in March, 2017, when he did an Executive Order ordering all regulatory agencies to avoid “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production.”  To the surprise of no one who had been paying attention to markets (the kinds of observations made in this piece), the coal industry continued to decline about as it had when the “war” was on.  It is nice to have a perspective from a time when the “war” was on, including discussion of what ails the industry, both during the “war” and now, after the truce.  It first appeared in The Spirit of Jefferson, Charles Town, W.Va.