But some surprise news from the coal miners’ union suggests that this latter position is getting harder and harder to sustain.
At an event Monday with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. V.), United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts unveiled an extraordinary document called “Preserving Coal Country,” which is in effect an admission that clean energy is the future.
The UMW proposal calls for tax credits to incentivize manufacturers to make things like solar panels and wind turbines in areas long dominated by coal. It calls for more federal money to be spent on retraining dislocated miners.
And it outlines plans for research and development funding to make coal cleaner, facilitate carbon capture and storage, and explore other ways to slow the transition to a decarbonized future, while acknowledging that this transition will happen no matter what.
As Noam Scheiber explains, the country’s “largest mine workers union” has just signaled that it will “accept a transition away from fossil fuels in exchange for new jobs in renewable energy, spending on technology to make coal cleaner and financial aid for miners who lose their jobs.”
It’s notable that in this area, unlike many others, Trump actually tried to deliver, attempting through the executive branch to promote coal use and protect the industry.
But that failed. In January 2017, there were just 51,000 jobs left in the industry, a minuscule number given the scope of the American economy. And the long decline didn’t reverse. By the time Trump left office, that had dropped to 42,000 jobs, about the same number of Americans who work at Panda Express.
That decline is a complicated story. But the main culprits are automation (which made it possible to mine with fewer miners) and increased competition from renewables and natural gas, which are now competitive with coal on price and contribute less to climate change.
The UMW’s acknowledgment that the transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable also invites the government to make sure that miners, their families and their communities play an active part in our clean energy future. And this in turn provides Democrats with a way to further beat back some of the worst aspects of Trumpism, if they handle this correctly.
Trump’s campaign in 2016 wasn’t just a promise to bring coal roaring back. It was also a nostalgia play, an argument that Democrats and elites are trying to uproot a way of life, superciliously unconcerned with the carnage it might create in local communities.
But proposals like this one — combined with President Biden’s calls for major investments in retrofitting our future decarbonized economy — suggest the issue may be getting slowly transformed. It’s becoming one where the transition can be reimagined in a way that gives working people a stake in that economy, recasting the transition as federal spending on jobs of the future.
To be clear, this is a complicated endeavor, particularly when it comes to coal miners.
Phil Smith, the chief lobbyist for the mine workers’ union, says miners face different challenges than, say, construction workers. While the latter might easily adopt construction jobs involved in the building of green infrastructure, miners have specific training and the jobs the union is calling for might not be as easy to create.
“The infrastructure build-out is going to be done by one set of people,” Smith told us. “But that’s not us.”
The big question, Smith said, is whether such a push can create permanent jobs that stand in for coal mining positions. This entails tax credits to get companies to manufacture renewable energy components in places like West Virginia’s coal country.
“Let’s say there’s a plant that relocates to Marion County that makes ball bearings for wind turbines, or makes turbine blades themselves,” Smith told us. These, he said, theoretically could be “skilled jobs” that could provide displaced workers with a “long term career.”
But, Smith added, the rub is whether these would be equivalent jobs.
“We don’t want coal miners who are making $32, $33 bucks an hour with great health care to step into a $15-per-hour job with no health care,” he said. Smith added that this could also run into problems if manufacturers don’t think tax credits sufficiently incentivize moving to the area.
There might also be tensions around the speed of such a transition, which coal miners will want to slow: Smith noted a key union goal remains to preserve, through clean-coal technology, as many existing coal jobs as possible.
Still, Democrats have long said that as a country, we can successfully manage such a transition. It’s remarkable that they might actually be given a chance to test that proposition out.