NewsFeed: "Coal, Hard Truths" by Michael Scherer

This week's Time magazine has the man of the hour on the cover.  I am, of course, talking about Bill Clinton, the darling of the Democratic National Convention.  But I hadn't even gotten to him before halting on the pages of Michael Scherer's article "Coal, Hard Truths."  Scherer introduces us to Robert E. Murray, owner of Murray Energy Corp, a coal-mining operation based in Ohio and also operating in Utah (site of the 2007 mine collapse that killed six miners).  In August, Murray was one of the firms that announced early closures of mines, responding to an ongoing decrease in demand for coal-fired energy.  Murray, however, blames something other than decreased demand.  He is one of the strongest voices in the prevailing coal country rhetoric regarding President Obama's "War on Coal."  The problem with this rhetoric is that it is mostly untrue.  Obama's administration has imposed regulations on coal-fired plants and has denied permits for mountaintop removal mining (MTR), perhaps the most disturbing and destructive form of mineral acquisition in the U.S.  However, environmentalists and left-leaning constituents have argued President Obama and the EPA have not done enough, and you will hear much from the Obama campaign about supporting coal jobs and coal power.  Here's the thing: as this Christian Science Monitor article indicates, cheap natural gas (which comes with its own problems) is the reason coal demand has declined, not the regulations that require the coal industry to clean up its act.

The American public has an insatiable demand for cheap energy, and we're going to go with what comes the cheapest.  Now, you could argue that if the government lifted ALL regulations on the coal industry, coal would still be cheaper, but that would mean returning to a time when deadly mine collapses like the Upper Big Branch disaster were a regular occurrence, and deaths from Black Lung Disease would destroy the region's people.  No one wants that.  In fact, I would argue that if the industry suddenly reverted to what mines used to be like, fewer miners would be willing to go underground.  The other reality is that coal is a limited natural resource, and we are running out.  So, even if we upped demand and mines started producing at top levels again, we'd just deplete that resource even faster and hasten the full collapse of the industry.  Fewer regulations ain't gonna save coal.

Even with those regulations in place, many miners would prefer to have some other line of work available to them.  Many miners do not want to be destroying their land and their people through MTR but choose to do so because of lack of viable options in the region.  Even those miners you see at protests and rallies are often less impassioned than they appear.  The Time article describes a common occurrence among mine owners like Murray:
When Vice President Joe Biden visited the county in May, Murray's general manager recruited teams off the graveyard shift to protest in their hard hats.  And when Mitt Romney came through in mid-August, Murray closed his mines and told his employees to attend a Romney rally, at which Murray provided hot dogs, soda pop and a magician to entertain their kids. (30)
Time reports this paragraph without commentary, but I was suspicious.  This has been happening for years.  Since the mine wars of the 1920s, owner/operators have made it clear to miners: they can support mine politics or pay the price.  But that kind of thing doesn't happen today, right?  ThinkProgress reports on this event, indicating miners were mandated to attend this rally - WITHOUT PAY.   Even those folks that vocally agree with the "War on Coal" often do so because any decline in the industry means near-destruction of their communities.  It's like the opposite of NIMBY.

But the miners are not the ones profiting from coal; they are merely surviving in a place they dearly love and want to remain in.  The ones profiting are the owners, and they are also the ones funding the "War on Coal" ad campaigns.  Time reports that the CEO of Alliance Resource Partners has given $2.6 million to anti-Obama ad campaigns; Alpha Natural Resources (formerly Massey) has given $600,000, and Murray himself has given almost $1 million (according to this site).  Overall, the coal mining industry has given $8.7 million to this election cycle (almost all to Republican campaigns).  I'm pretty sure most miners do not have an extra $8.7 million to contribute to campaigns.  So, even though the industry is declining and miners are losing their jobs, the owners are not seeing a financial decline themselves.  Those same owners are the ones diversifying their holdings so that when (not if) coal collapses, they will be just fine.  Again, it is only those destroyed communities that have no options to diversify.

Obama may have a War on Coal, and some of us are glad he does.  But Murray's attempt to define his efforts as being motivated by "preserving the livelihoods of his workers from the "Hollywood" characters, unionists and wealthy elitists" must be seen for the lie that it is.  Murray wants to preserve the coal industry; but if he can't (and "these malls will be empty" as he says), he won't be there looking for work with the unemployed miners.  If he really cared about the livelihoods of his workers, he would be working to diversify the economy of the region, giving residents an actual choice in where they work and who they vote for.


  1. Acquiring energy is just ugly. We are basically removing bone marrow from the earth, and there's just no easy or harmless way to get to bone marrow. Either we do it ourselves, or we make really sketchy friends around the world to do it for us.

    My uncle was a miner and now a surveyor, and many of his jobs continue to involve the mining industry. His p.o.v. on these matters have been enlightening, if a bit depressing. (He is in favor of frakking and MTR; he believes the earth is doomed no matter what we do, so why suffer more trying to stop the inevitable.)

    Personally, I enjoyed the heck out of Season Two of JUSTIFIED because it attempted to put the mining industry's challenges, and that of their employees, in a way that was engaging and didn't beat the viewer over the head with the issues.

    Well-written and well-linked piece, Sara!

    1. Agreed about the ugliness and its inevitability, Billy. Unfortunately, more and more of the coal we are mining is going to create power for those sketchy friends. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/05/coal_export_terminals_and_china_should_the_u_s_ship_its_dirty_coal_to_china_.html

      More linking!

      What feels equally inevitable but doesn't have to be is how much energy we are demanding. If we used significantly less energy, we'd stop needing so many bone marrow transplants. I've got to get a look at Justified. Still haven't seen more than a clip.