Moving on from coal without abandoning miners

Charleston Gazette Mail
By Jim Probst Jun 21, 2021
“Change is coming whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer. We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

The above quote is from a document released in April by the United Mine Workers of America, titled “Preserving Coal Country.” On June 16 there was a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that addresses the changes occurring in coal country in a real, positive and substantial manner.

Introduced by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the Save Our Futures Act proposes a comprehensive list of support for coal miners and coal-fired power plant workers affected by the transitions occurring in the ways that we produce energy.

For workers and their families, the bill includes:

n Five years of full wage replacement.

n Continuation of health care for five years based on previous employment.

n Continuation of pension contributions for five years also based on level from previous employer.

n Establishment of a G.I. Bill type program to provide educational benefits to affected workers and their children.

The bill also makes sure that the communities that have contributed so much are not left behind in this transition. Proposed support for communities would include:

n Replacement of lost tax revenue, for local governments, on a sliding scale, over a 10-year time period.

n Increased investment in abandoned mine reclamation, coal ash pond remediation and orphan oil well recovery.

n Increased investment in agencies important to community economic development such as the Appalachian Regional Commission.

n Investment of $30 million per year for 10 years in rural broadband development.

Quoting the President of the Utility Workers of America, who have endorsed this legislation, “The five years of full wage replacement, health insurance coverage, pension and educational benefits in this legislation together represent a baseline of support we must offer individuals and communities that have powered American innovation for generations.”

All told, this legislation would offer approximately $120 billion over 10 years to fossil fuel workers and their communities as part of its Energy Veterans Package.

Of course, the driver of this need for action is our changing climate. The Save Our Futures Act will take a robust approach to addressing climate change by placing a substantial fee on greenhouse gas emissions and rebating 70% of the fees collected to low- and middle-income households on a semi-annual basis.

This approach will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% after 10 years and help to ensure that global temperature change is kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The reality is that we can no longer say that change is coming. Change to our climate is happening now as are the ways that we produce our energy. In the past 10 years employment in the U.S. coal industry has declined by over 50%.

To quote the UMWA, “The devastating impact on families and communities cannot be overstated. Divorce, drug addiction, imprisonment and suicide rates are all on the rise. Poverty levels are creeping back up in Northern and Central Appalachia, the heart of coal country. For every one direct coal job that has been lost, four other jobs have disappeared in these communities, meaning a quarter of a million jobs have already been lost.”

The need for urgent action is now. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., have both acknowledged the need to take steps to address climate change as well as the downturn our coal communities are dealing with. The problem is that their approaches to date just haven’t risen to the level of urgency required.

We are in need of a bold, dynamic, far-reaching and comprehensive pathway to addressing what are certainly the most important issues of our time. The Save Our Futures Act provides that pathway and I strongly urge our two senators to support this legislation.

Jim Probst, of Hamlin, is co-state coordinator of the West Virginia Citizens Climate Lobby.