Coal miners’ union lobbies for jobs in renewable energy

Dumptruck full of coal drives through strip mining area.

What if the British crown had offered the Luddites a retraining program and the promise of good-paying factory jobs? Perhaps they would have accepted the textile transition?

That’s essentially what the nation’s largest coal miner union is suggesting. In exchange for job retraining, wage replacement, and preferential hiring for out-of-work coal miners, the United Mine Workers of America would support the transition away from carbon-polluting fossil fuels. It’s also calling for tax incentives to build portions of the renewable energy supply chain in coal country.

“We’ll take good paying jobs any way we can get them,” said Cecil Roberts, the president of the UWMA, in a talk hosted by the National Press Club. “The government has not done a good job, if at all, managing what’s going on in the coal fields,” he said, citing rounds of layoffs and mine closures.

“Ensuring our coal miners aren’t left behind as America transitions to a cleaner energy future is one of my top priorities,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) at the event. “While the industry has been in a steady downturn in job opportunities, maintaining those good-paying jobs as we reduce emissions is both possible and it’s our responsibility.”

Employment in coal mines has plummeted in recent years—it’s less than half what it was a decade ago, down to 44,000 at the end of last year. The decline has come as natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar have displaced coal in the electrical grid. Natural gas has been the main driver. Between 2009-2019, the share of electricity generated by coal in the US dropped from 46 percent to 20 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas rose from 22 percent to 39 percent, while solar and wind increased from 2 percent to 11 percent.

To claw back some of that share, the UWMA plan prioritizes carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), calling for a utility-scale coal plant with CCS to be operational by 2030. The Biden administration’s infrastructure plan supports CCS, but even with that, the UWMA’s timeline might be ambitious, since companies have abandoned two US commercial CCS plants that burned coal. And given coal’s precipitous decline over the last decade, 2030 may not be soon enough to have a significant impact on mine employment. The union seems to acknowledge that, with its plan also calling for more US production of steel, which uses high-quality coal, and creating additional markets for “alternative products from coal.”

But even if coal production were to stabilize, it wouldn’t be enough to rehire the tens of thousands of miners that have been laid off. To that end, the union’s plan calls for job retraining programs and the “build-out of renewable supply-chain manufacturing in coalfield areas” and to “provide hiring preference for dislocated miners and families.” The UWMA also suggests that out-of-work miners could process coal waste to extract critical minerals, and Roberts said that he’s hopeful that coal country will become a significant manufacturing hub.

Manchin suggested that pieces of the electric vehicle supply chain could be moved into the region to add jobs, particularly in the area of battery manufacturing. The US has not taken adequate steps to make batteries domestically, he said. “It’s a shame that we’ve gone down this path, but we’ve made no provisions at all to manufacture and have the right resources it takes to manufacture batteries,” Manchin said.