Obama agenda speeds coal in­dus­try’s de­cline Work­ers re­ject White House at­tempts to tran­si­tion them to other lines of work

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

ST. CLAIRSVILLE, OHIO | Frank Stu­pak got his start in the coal busi­ness just as it was be­gin­ning its steep de­cline, and while there’s lit­tle chance the in­dus­try will ever re­turn to its glory days, the 27-year-old safety man­ager isn’t giv­ing up hope.

“We know what our in­dus­try did for this coun­try. Hope­fully some­day we’ll get back there,” he said while deep in­side an Ohio County Coal Com­pany mine along the Ohio-West Vir­ginia border, coal dust fill­ing the air around him and the sound of ma­chin­ery nearly drown­ing out his voice.

Mr. Stu­pak came to work for the Ohio County Coal Co. — a sub­sidiary of Mur­ray En­ergy Corp., the na­tion’s largest coal-min­ing op­er­a­tion — af­ter briefly at­tend­ing col­lege but de­cid­ing “it wasn’t really my thing.”

To some, his ca­reer choice may seem fool­ish.

The in­dus­try is los­ing jobs at a rapid pace, the re­sult of both Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and the rise of cheaper, cleaner nat­u­ral gas, an in­creas­ingly ap­peal­ing op­tion for util­i­ties.

Mur­ray En­ergy Corp. — led by its toughtalk­ing, of­ten-in­flam­ma­tory CEO, Robert Mur­ray — hasn’t been im­mune. The com­pany shed more than 1,400 jobs ear­lier this year. It now counts among its ranks roughly 7,000 employees, though the com­pany has done rel­a­tively well com­pared to the in­dus­try as a whole.

Fewer than 70,000 peo­ple now work in the coal-min­ing in­dus­try it­self, down about 20 per­cent in just the past five years, fed­eral fig­ures show. From 2008 to 2012, the coal sec­tor lost about 50,000 jobs, ac­cord­ing to Duke Univer­sity data, and the trend has con­tin­ued since.

The job losses are pro­jected to con­tinue as the ad­min­is­tra­tion moves ahead with reg­u­la­tions — in­clud­ing the Clean Power Plan, which lim­its car­bon emis­sions from power plants — ex­plic­itly de­signed to phase coal out of the U.S. en­ergy mix. Coal now is re­spon­si­ble for 37 per­cent of Amer­ica’s elec­tric­ity, down from nearly 50 per­cent at the start of Pres­i­dent Obama’s time in of­fice.

“We’ve never seen any­thing like this dev­as­ta­tion,” said Mr. Mur­ray, the 75-yearold Mur­ray En­ergy Corp. CEO who is both the loud­est re­main­ing cham­pion of coal and also the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s chief foe in court, lead­ing var­i­ous law­suits chal­leng­ing nu­mer­ous pieces of the pres­i­dent’s en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda.

Gov­ern­ment as­sault

In ar­eas such as St. Clairsville, Ohio, where Mur­ray En­ergy Corp. main­tains its head­quar­ters, some res­i­dents be­lieve their re­gion has been un­der direct as­sault by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Many seem less

in­ter­ested

in a con­ver­sa­tion about the finer points of fed­eral cli­mate change pol­icy and more con­cerned about what’s al­ready hap­pened to their com­mu­ni­ties and what may hap­pen in the fu­ture.

“They’re shut­ting th­ese power plants down. When they get cold or get too hot, they’ll fi­nally re­al­ize that the wind­mills and stuff are not go­ing to do it,” Richard Clay, a 71-year-old re­tired elec­tri­cian from St. Clairsville, said re­cently as he threw back a late-af­ter­noon beer at the West Texas Road­house, one of sev­eral bars on the out­skirts of town, just a few miles from the Mur­ray En­ergy Corp. com­plex.

Through­out the en­tire re­gion, fears per­sist about the rip­ple ef­fects of coal’s de­cline. Some say coal min­ers are be­ing un­fairly sin­gled out to the detri­ment of lo­cal economies.

“You can’t pun­ish those peo­ple be­cause of en­ergy, be­cause we haven’t de­vel­oped bet­ter en­ergy sources. You can’t pun­ish those peo­ple. It’s not their fault. They’re just there work­ing, try­ing to make a liv­ing,” said Jen­nifer Estep, owner of Ni­col’s Fam­ily Restau­rant in Zanesville, Ohio, about an hour’s drive west from St. Clairsville.

“Ev­ery­thing is af­fected,” she said of the con­se­quences of coal’s down­turn. “If [coal min­ers] don’t have any money to go out and eat, then I’m out of busi­ness.”

Help from Wash­ing­ton

For its part the ad­min­is­tra­tion is push­ing plans to help coal com­mu­ni­ties sur­vive and to place out-of-work min­ers in other lines of work.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed an ini­tia­tive, dubbed the “POWER + Plan,” to pour bil­lions of dol­lars into coal com­mu­ni­ties for job train­ing, in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments and other ef­forts that, in the­ory, will put dis­placed coal min­ers back to work.

The ex­ten­sive plan has gone nowhere through the nor­mal fed­eral bud­get process, though the ad­min­is­tra­tion has used ex­ist­ing funds to aid coal com­mu­ni­ties. Last month, for ex­am­ple, the ad­min­is­tra­tion doled out $14 mil­lion for worker re­train­ing, in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment and other ini­tia­tives in Ken­tucky, West Vir­ginia and else­where.

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton also has em­braced that con­cept in re­cent weeks, re­leas­ing a de­tailed plan to keep coal com­mu­ni­ties from sink­ing into an eco­nomic abyss.

“Build­ing a 21st cen­tury clean en­ergy econ­omy in the United States will cre­ate new jobs and in­dus­tries, de­liver im­por­tant health ben­e­fits, and re­duce car­bon pol­lu­tion. But we can’t ig­nore the im­pact this tran­si­tion is al­ready hav­ing on min­ing com­mu­ni­ties, or the threat it poses to the health­care and re­tire­ment se­cu­rity of coal­field work­ers and their fam­i­lies,” the Clin­ton cam­paign said in a lengthy pro­posal that rep­re­sents the most de­tailed pol­icy prescription for aid­ing coal com­mu­ni­ties from any can­di­date in ei­ther party.

“This is par­tic­u­larly true in Ap­palachia, where pro­duc­tion has been de­clin­ing for decades, but im­pacts are be­gin­ning to be felt in the Illi­nois Basin and Western coal­fields as well. And it’s not lim­ited to min­ing com­mu­ni­ties: re­duced coal ship­ments im­pact barge and rail­road work­ers, and power plant clo­sures can con­trib­ute to lo­cal job loss and eco­nomic dis­tress,” the pro­posal con­tin­ued, ex­plain­ing how Mrs. Clin­ton would ded­i­cate at least $30 bil­lion to se­cure min­ers’ pen­sions and health ben­e­fits, in­vest in ru­ral schools, boost in­fra­struc­ture projects, fund new job-train­ing pro­grams and take other badly needed steps.

No de­sire to change

In­side the Ohio County Coal Com­pany mine — which puts out about 26,000 tons of us­able coal each day — Mr. Stu­pak and his col­leagues don’t talk much about fed­eral re­train­ing pro­grams. In­stead, they’re usu­ally discussing their fam­i­lies, or ex­plain­ing to visi­tors to the mine — in­clud­ing many U.S. and for­eign me­dia out­lets — how the whole op­er­a­tion works.

In more per­sonal terms, many of the min­ers say they sim­ply aren’t in­ter­ested in find­ing work else­where if their com­pany shuts down.

“Ev­ery­thing I have comes from coal min­ing. It’s all I’ve done. I don’t know any bet­ter,” said Kevin Hughes, 58, gen­eral man­ager and vice pres­i­dent of oper­a­tions at the Ohio Coal County Com­pany and a 40-year vet­eran of the in­dus­try.

Mr. Stu­pak and Mr. Hughes spoke as con­veyor belts sent a seem­ingly end­less sup­ply of coal out of the dimly lit mine. The mine is one of 17 long­wall mines op­er­ated by Mur­ray En­ergy. The long­wall min­ing process, Mr. Mur­ray ex­plained, is more ef­fi­cient than other forms, such as con­tin­u­ous min­ing.

Long­wall min­ing re­lies on ma­chin­ery — in­clud­ing the “shearer,” which can best be de­scribed as a big­ger version of a deli slicer — to, in essence, shave coal off from the seams. Con­tin­u­ous min­ing, by con­trast, rips coal from the seams and gen­er­ally re­quires more man­power and more setup and tear-down time.

In ad­di­tion to its 17 long­wall mines, Mur­ray also owns and op­er­ates 15 coal prepa­ra­tion plants, 600 barges, four min­ing ma­chin­ery fa­cil­i­ties and a host of other as­sets.

The com­pany pro­duces about 88 mil­lion tons of pro­cessed coal each year, and Mr. Mur­ray ar­gues his com­pany will sur­vive the in­dus­try’s down­turn be­cause of its laser­like fo­cus on long­wall min­ing and op­er­at­ing sites near wa­ter to min­i­mize land trans­porta­tion costs.

An ag­ing fuel

But lead­ers in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment ar­gue that fos­sil fuel cham­pi­ons like Mr. Mur­ray and his al­lies in Congress are will­fully mis­lead­ing Mr. Stu­pak, Mr. Hughes and oth­ers by push­ing the nar­ra­tive that coal will re­main vi­able in the com­ing years.

Anti-coal activists say it’s time for all sides to ad­mit the fuel’s fu­ture is bleak, at best, and that all stake­hold­ers should work to find new ca­reer paths for min­ers.

“I think there is ac­tu­ally a huge amount of com­mon ground. Ev­ery­body wants clean air, ev­ery­body wants clean wa­ter,” said Mary Anne Hitt, di­rec­tor of the Sierra Club’s Be­yond Coal ini­tia­tive, the largest and most suc­cess­ful anti-coal cam­paign in Amer­i­can history. “Frankly, where we have been let down is by some of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the re­gion who have found it eas­ier — and I think some of the coal com­pa­nies as well — have found it eas­ier to pit peo­ple against one an­other than to try and solve some of th­ese prob­lems.”

JARED WICKERHAM/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Cory Chanze, shield­man for the Ohio County Coal Co., sur­veys the long­wall op­er­a­tion in­side the Ohio County mine in Dal­las, West Vir­ginia.

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