Bloomberg View

There is a huge un­em­ploy­ment cost to the de­cline and end of the in­dus­try

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Conntents -

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The de­cline of coal as a source of elec­tric power is in­evitable and well un­der way. This is a good thing, be­cause whether mea­sured by its ef­fect on pub­lic health or its con­tri­bu­tion to global warm­ing, coal is more harm­ful than any other widely used source of elec­tric­ity.

But there’s a hu­man cost to this tran­si­tion: un­em­ploy­ment in coal coun­try. Over the past five years, as the in­dus­try has shed 94 per­cent of its mar­ket value in the U.S., some 15,000 jobs have dis­ap­peared in West Vir­ginia and Ken­tucky alone. West Vir­ginia’s Boone County and Ken­tucky’s Union County have lost roughly 1 job for ev­ery 24 res­i­dents.

Al­though the pain has been cru­elly con­cen­trated, it should be of na­tional con­cern. That’s not be­cause the govern­ment is to blame; more than any­thing else, the low price of nat­u­ral gas has un­der­mined the mar­ket value of coal-fired power. But coal’s de­cline is ac­cel­er­ated by pub­lic poli­cies de­signed to re­duce deaths from air pol­lu­tion and to limit cli­mate change. And while the govern­ment is right to re­strict coal’s emis­sions, it should also help peo­ple deal with the con­se­quences.

The re­gions that are suf­fer­ing are ill-equipped to cope on their own. West Vir­ginia’s 2014 per-capita in­come was $36,644, the low­est of any state save Mis­sis­sippi. As of Novem­ber, just 49.5 per­cent of its res­i­dents were work­ing, the low­est share in the coun­try; Ken­tucky wasn’t much bet­ter, at 53.3 per­cent. The sui­cide rates in both states are among the na­tion’s high­est.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has asked Congress to sup­port a range of ini­tia­tives to help, in­clud­ing more job train­ing. It also wants to di­rect the sur­plus in the fed­eral aban­doned mine lands fund, which is bankrolled by coal com­pa­nies to clean up old mines, to­ward projects that cre­ate lo­cal em­ploy­ment. Pro­vid­ing wider broad­band In­ter­net ser­vice could help, too, by giv­ing peo­ple more op­por­tu­ni­ties to ac­cess new mar­kets. Congress has shame­fully ig­nored the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quests.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion also wants Congress to pay the pen­sion and health- care obli­ga­tions of coal min­ing com­pa­nies that have gone bank­rupt. This is a more chal­leng­ing propo­si­tion, be­cause it risks cre­at­ing a prece­dent for ben­e­fi­cia­ries of un­der­funded pen­sion plans in other in­dus­tries. But if the as­sis­tance can be ar­ranged in a way that pro­tects tax­pay­ers from fu­ture claims, Congress should pay for this, too. The best way to sup­port coal work­ers is to en­sure they get the ben­e­fits they’ve al­ready earned.

In op­pos­ing th­ese changes, Repub­li­cans ar­gue that the best way for the govern­ment to help coal work­ers is to turn back reg­u­la­tions on air pol­lu­tion and green­house- gas emis­sions. That would sac­ri­fice the broader pub­lic good and still fail to save the in­dus­try. The time when coal is king is past; what the com­mu­ni­ties it once sus­tained need now are al­ter­na­tives.

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