Thirty thousand coal mining jobs have been lost since 2011. In central Appalachia, seven thousand miners lost their jobs from 2015 to 2016.54 The US Energy Information Administration expects central Appalachia’s coal output to decline nearly sixty percent by 2035, mostly due to competition from other fuels. The EPA predicts that coal, which until recently provided half of U.S. energy, will decrease to 30 percent by 2030.
President Donald Trump has promised to revive coal industry employment. On the campaign trail he told a crowd of miners that they will be “working [their] asses off” after he takes office. But few experts agree. Nick Carter of the Kentucky Coal Association says he “would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency.” United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts says the reality of climate change and necessity of reducing carbon emissions will force coal producers to work with environmental regulations even under Republican leadership.
The decline of the Appalachian coal industry creates two related problems. The thousands of miners who have already lost their jobs and the thousands more who face layoffs regardless of Trump’s dubious promises need a livelihood. And communities devastated by the decline of the coal industry need a strategy to establish new jobs and a new economic base. Two recent studies suggest strategies for each.
A Lesson from German Miners?
In “A Superfund for Workers: How to Promote a Just Transition and Break Out of the Jobs vs. Environment Trap” LNS’s Jeremy Brecher presented a plan to protect workers whose livelihood might be threatened by the on-going decline of coal and other fossil fuel jobs.
A recent article, “Just Transitions for the Miners: Labor Environmentalism in the Ruhr and Appalachian Coalfields” by Judson Abraham presents an in-depth account of how unions and government worked together to ensure such a just transition for Germany’s hard coal miners.
In 1998, Germany committed to reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, with renewables producing 60 percent of electricity by 2050 and 100% by the end of the century. A quarter to a third of Germany’s energy is now produced by renewables.
IG BCE accepts strong environmental policy, including a transition away from coal, when it is “tailored to the needs of coal communities, implemented gradually, and accompanied with guarantees of job security for working miners.” In 2007 IG BCE supported legislation mandating the closure of Germany’s eight remaining underground coal mines by 2018 without forced layoffs and and guaranteed security. The plan allocated thirty billion Euros to keep the mines going until 2018 to protect Germany’s remaining hard coal mining jobs.The deal allows miners who have worked for at least twenty-five years to retire as early as age forty-nine, at which point they may receive a monthly stipend until they qualify for a pension and guarantees younger and less experienced miners replacement jobs.
The government has provided hundreds of millions of Euros since the late 1960s to o set impacted miners’ earnings losses, work retraining, and moving expenses. German workers’ militancy has thus produced a system of industrial democracy and cooperation that facilitates labor environmentalism in Germany’s ongoing transition away from coal.
According to Abraham, the coal miners union effectively prevented Germany’s energy transition from severely harming their members in Saarland and Ruhr’s underground mines. “These underground miners won a just transition” because their union fought for “a degree of democratic industrial planning,” “centralized institutions and practices allowing democratic unions to negotiate industrial policy alongside government and business,” and “a consolidated, quasi-public coal industry.”
Abraham makes clear that the context of coal mining in Germany and the U.S. is different in many ways. But as the crisis in coal country continues – Trump notwithstanding – this study provides a starting point for planning for a just transition for American coal miners as well.
German lessons, anyone?
A Jobs Plan for Coal Country
Eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian coal belt was long a center of coal mining and a stronghold of the United Mineworkers of America. The region has been economically devastated by the shift of the coal industry to Wyoming and other western states; the falling cost of natural gas and other competing fuels; the exhaustion of accessible coal deposits; and the growing opposition to the negative health and environmental effects of mining, transporting, and burning coal. In 2013 the 54 counties of Appalachian Kentucky had only 8,614 remaining coal miners, and the remaining coal jobs were expected to steadily diminish over the coming years. Eastern Kentucky had 50,953 unemployed workers, many of them formerly coal miners. Its unemployment rate was 10.3% compared to 7.4% for the country as a whole.
Is there anything the hard-hit workers of Eastern Kentucky can do to provide an alternative to its dying coal industry? A report by the Labor Network for Sustainability, “Employment After coal: Creating new jobs in Eastern Kentucky” answers with a resounding yes.
Produced for the Labor Network for Sustainability by economist Dr. Frank Ackerman of Synapse Energy Economics, it develops a plan that will replace half of Eastern Kentucky’s remaining coal jobs and bring its unemployment rate down to the national average by 2030.
When economists analyze developing countries, they often identify three potential sources of job growth. First is “import substitution,” in which jobs are created by doing work locally instead of buying products abroad. Second is “export promotion,” in which jobs are created by producing goods and services that are sold abroad. Third is “foreign aid,” in which assistance from outside helps create jobs in the country. To identify the potential for new jobs, Dr. Ackerman applied a similar approach to Eastern Kentucky. He identified two “import substitution” sectors, three “export” sectors, and one “foreign aid” sector and estimated the potential for growth in each.
The first “import substitution” measure is to stop buying so much electricity from outside the region by expanding energy efficiency measures, with the creation of 1220 jobs and with a net saving of more than $100 million by 2030 to residential consumers. The second is to create an estimated 2,681 jobs by growing locally some of the food that is currently imported from outside the region. The third is to create 4,733 jobs by expanding medical facilities so that residents won’t have to leave the region so often for healthcare.
An obvious “export” opportunity is to use Eastern Kentucky’s abundant forests to expand jobs in logging, sawmills, and other wood products occupations. The report proposes such an expansion on a scale that will not conflict with sustainable forest growth, producing 7,706 jobs. Another is to create 7,904 jobs by attracting tourists. “Eco-tourism” and “agri-tourism” would be particularly compatible with plans to sustainably develop the region’s forests and farms.
Finally, remediating the environmental damage done by the coal industry is a national responsibility. Some funding has already come into Eastern Kentucky for this purpose, and more would result from the Power Plus plan in the Obama administrations 2016 budget. Expansion of such “foreign aid” would create at least 426 jobs in Eastern Kentucky.
Together the proposals for these six sectors would produce 24,671 jobs in Appalachian Kentucky by 2030. That’s more than enough to replace half of current jobs in coal mining and to reduce the unemployment rate to the national average.