Thousands of coal miners swarmed the Capitol's west lawn Tuesday to protest forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency regulations that they say will kill jobs in coal communities.
The estimated crowd of 3,000 at the industry-sponsored event railed against greenhouse gas emission rules floated by President Obama's EPA. Attendees, as well as lawmakers who spoke at the event, contended the agency is putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.
“We're going to push back against these people in every chance we can. We are going to stop this war on coal,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at the event. “[Obama] has created a depression in eastern Kentucky.”
The EPA's carbon rule for new power plants is due by June, and the one for existing plants is scheduled for June 2015.
Republicans, centrist Democrats and industry officials say those impending rules, which are the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s plan to address climate change, will drive energy prices higher, stunt the economy and create ghost towns out of coal communities.
The answer to coal country’s woes, however, are more nuanced than the carbon rules.
Much of the coal industry’s recent troubles come from the influx of newfound, domestic natural gas that has come online as a result of the shale energy boom. That abundance has driven natural gas prices to historic lows, in turn pushing electric utilities to burn that fuel instead of coal.
As a result, coal’s share of the U.S. electricity mix dropped to 34 percent in March 2012 — its lowest slice of the power pie since 1973. While it has rebounded slightly to 39 percent in August, according to the Energy Information Administration, it’s still far below the roughly 50 percent share coal enjoyed through much of the 2000s.
Still, attendees and lawmakers at Tuesday’s rally didn’t see it that way, as they focused on the Obama administration’s environmental policies.
“Singling out coal as a health risk isn’t fair,” Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said at the rally, referring to the administration’s estimates that its emissions rules would save residents billions of dollars in healthcare costs through reduced air and water pollution.
Elizabeth Justus, a retired hairdresser from Grundy, Va., said the EPA rules would threaten her southwest Virginia community.
“When coal goes, our tables are going to be empty,” she said. “It’s going to get desperate.”
Those times have already come for Eddie Lilly.
The 29-year-old works at a firm that sells building materials and mining supplies in Raleigh County, W.Va. He said his hours were cut from 50 to 70 per week to 32 to 40 hours beginning this year.
And for Lilly, it’s more than just his own job at stake — his brother is a miner, and another relative is a security guard at a coal mine.
“This is the worst it’s ever been, and I’ve been in the coal fields since I was 18,” Lilly said. “It’s the president against coal.”
Regardless of the culprit, preventing the decay of Appalachia’s coal communities is a concern for labor groups and the environmental organizations that support the Obama administration’s emissions policies.
Union leaders discussed the issue of transitioning at a climate change conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, saying that activists cannot ignore the impact the downturn in coal production can have on portions of the country.
The Associated Press noted that Tahir Duckett, an AFL-CIO representative who spoke at the Power Shift conference, said shutting down the coal industry "can turn entire communities into a ghost town. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend like people aren't fighting for their very survival."
Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said the employment issue is troubling.
She suggested that former coal-industry workers could retrain to do home energy efficiency upgrades, remediate old mining sites or transition to other sectors of the energy economy.
“It’s a complicated problem and it’s going to take a lot of people putting their heads together to find a solution,” she said. “It’s a longer-term project and again I think many people are very deeply committed to figuring it out.”
Some communities where coal plants, such as the TransAlta-run Centralia plant in southwest Washington, have announced they will stop using coal have worked out transition packages to help retrain workers, Hitt noted.
But such deals would be more difficult to strike if new EPA regulations force plants to shut their doors quickly, Roeber said.
Hitt noted that Appalachian lawmakers need to have a “more honest discussion” about climate change and the future of the coal industry, saying that it was a “disservice” to avoid the topic.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., said that coal communities need to do a better job diversifying their economies – even if it means inviting the natural gas industry into its backyard.
Ultimately, though, Rahall said the issue of transitioning from being heavily dependent on the coal industry is as much cultural as anything else.
“You gotta understand the heritage of coal mining, and how so many are doing what their fathers, their grandfathers or great-grandfathers did. And that’s what they want to continue to do,” Rahall said. “So you have to understand there’s a hesitance among some of them to retrain for those jobs.”