I like coal. I like the coal industry. I like the people in the coal industry, all the way from the belt muckers to the CEOs. Full disclosure requires that I tell you that I work in the coal industry myself. So did my father. My grandfathers and other relatives were coal miners. I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, the heart of the Kentucky coal fields. So, if you think I’m biased, I probably am.
I’m not going to wear you out with numbers. I could fill this post with statistics about electrical generation and steel production, cheap utility rates and job statistics. If you support coal, you’ll cheer. If you’re a coal hater (and there are plenty), you’ll just cluck your tongue and talk about how the miners are too ignorant to know what’s best for them or you’ll quote other numbers about how much greater the cost is than the benefit. My purpose is not to persuade you to embrace the industry anymore than I would think I could make you change religions in a 2,000 word blog post. That is beyond my powers of persuasion.
This is simply to say my piece about an industry that is bruised, battered and under constant attack. I’m neither defensive about, nor ashamed of, the coal industry. Here’s why:
I like coal miners. They’re good folks to deal with and fun to be around. They’re irreverent and funny. They’re also admirable. They work difficult jobs under tough working conditions. Nevertheless, they take great pride in what they do and most really enjoy their work. Don’t get me wrong–they view it as work, hard work in fact.
Imagine going underground 2 or 3 miles to go to work in a honeycombed, man-made cave. When you arrive at your work site, the area is dark, and you don’t have enough room to stand up. Add to that close confines with powerful, mechanized equipment. It’s tough work, no doubt.
Yes, the hours are long and the conditions are tough, but this isn’t the 1930’s. Miners are paid well, whether they are in unions or not. Coal mines are safer now than ever before, although they are not without risks. Whether you’re a farmer, truck driver, fisherman or a miner, any time human beings work in close proximity to powerful equipment, there are dangers. The nature of my job brings me into situations where they are mine accidents. I get to see the pain and grief up close with serious accidents. If you believe that no one cares, you’re wrong.
It’s always in vogue to patronize so-called blue-collar workers as being the back bone of America or the salt of the Earth or some such other hollow praise. Miners are like everyone else. Some aren’t so good at what they do or don’t work hard. That’s human nature. On the whole, however, miners impress me with not only their work ethic but their skill in doing their jobs.
Whatever your job, imagine being expected to know the details of hundreds of government regulations. Everyone in your workplace from the custodian to the CEO is expected to know these rules. Everyday, someone from the government walks around your office making sure that you comply with these rules. Everything from lack of hand soap in the restroom to life-threatening dangers will be examined. Every misstep will cost your employer money. The pressures are daunting. This is part of the daily grind of a coal miner, too.
If your image of a miner is walking to work with a pick and shovel, you’re behind the times. They don’t get paid by the ton anymore, either. They’re not being randomly attacked by company thugs. If you want to know what those days were like, read Harlan Miners Speak compiled by something called “The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners” in 1932. Like any industry, today’s coal business bears little resemblance to the world of 80 years ago.
Nevertheless, these are hard jobs. Yet, these men–and women, too–gladly go to work every day. They are glad to have their jobs. They don’t take them for granted, either. Like I said, it’s admirable. I like these folks.
I also like Eastern Kentucky. Now, maybe that’s because I grew up there. Like most small town people who left home, I’ve grown more fond of my home town over the years. We may see the end of mining in my lifetime. That will be a sad day for my people.
The coal haters will tell you I’m wrong. The poor, ignorant mountain people don’t that they’re better off without coal. Coal is bad and is to blame for all the woes known to the mountains. Bad schools, bad roads, bad health. Bad coal. These folks will tell you that if we can just preserve the beauty of the mountains, everyone will be okay. Goodbye coal. Hello, Utopia.
Reality, of course, won’t be like that. When coal is gone, the people will follow. The industrial base will be gone. The mountains don’t support farmers or any other industry. While the Federal Government has spent billions providing aid to the poor, the infrastructure, such as it is, has been ignored. Money which could have provided modern highways, sewers and water systems, instead went to fight the War on Poverty. If there had, in fact, been such a war, Poverty would have won in a blood bath. Now, we have a drug problem in the mountains that rivals anything in the inner cities. The answer, of course, is less income, a lower tax base and decreased population. If anyone proposed that solution for America’s inner cities, he or she would be accused of genocide.
So, the mountains will be pristine. Perhaps, the former residents can visit from time to time. But, if anyone believes that life will be grand and everyone will just move on to something better, it won’t happen. Try to find a job in Eastern Kentucky paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year. Miners make that kind of money. For families that have struggled, that can change lives.
I take great umbrage at people who imply that Eastern Kentucky is hell hole. Small towns there are like small towns anywhere else. Everyone knows your business. Life is slow. It’s easy for some people and a dead-end for others.
The coal fields should be in charge of their own future. Eastern Kentuckians are not simple-minded children who need to be told what is best for them. Every coal company I know, regardless of ownership, employs people from its area. Local people who have pride in what they do. They aren’t ashamed of it and don’t need to be told they’re wrong. Leave them alone.
FIGHT THE POWER
We have a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky–The Lexington Herald-Leader. It’s owned by The McClatchy Company, which is based in Sacramento, California. Over the past few years, the Herald has laid off employees in Lexington and basically run the paper like its number one priority is to make a profit. Rarely a week passes without the Herald running some ill-tempered screed about “King Coal,” decrying its absentee owners and that the industry is profit-driven. These are often accompanied by sophomoric editorial cartoons as humorous as a truck load of dead babies. If the Herald’s editorial board and absentee owners see the irony, they certainly never acknowledge it. For our paper, there is no greater villain than King Coal. Every political or legal defeat for the coal industry is trumpeted like the polio vaccine. One wonders if newspapers in the Detroit area react with glee when there is bad news for the automobile industry.
Coal loses the PR war and increasingly the political war, too. I dare not bore you with the details of all the wrong-headed regulatory pressure brought to bear on coal over the last few years. Suffice to say that President Obama has followed through on his promise to bankrupt anyone who wants to burn coal. While the President may be subject to legitimate criticism for not following through on campaign promises, this is one that he has embraced with a vengeance. When he hasn’t been able to get the legislation he wants, his appointed policy wonks simply decree the changes. For example, his ill-conceived “Cap and Trade” law was never passed. Incredibly, this law–designed to end coal consumption–was actually supported by Kentucky Congressmen. Not to be undone by this defeat, the Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated regulations with the same goal in mind–the end of coal consumption in the United States.
All this redoubles my support of coal. Nothing gets my back up like fighting the power. Something or someone has to be willing to stand between the government and private citizens. Make no mistake–coal companies are made up of people. CEOs, attorneys, accountants, superintendents, foremen, scoop operators, miner men, roof bolters, electricians and belt muckers. Believe it or not, these are people. When a coal mine closes–which is happening more and more frequently–lives are affected. Some are devastated.
As matters now stands, our government has decided–through appointed bureaucrats–that power plants must reduce certain emissions within the next few years. These bureaucrats know that coal-fired plants cannot meet these requirements. The plan is to take coal out of the market. This isn’t okay with me.
But, what of renewable energy, windmills and solar and the like? I have nothing against renewable energy. Nothing. Bring it into the market now. Today. Create all the “green” jobs possible. Bring them to Eastern Kentucky. Today. If the market responds to these alternatives, there will be a place for them. The United States produces 4,500 BILLION kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. There is plenty of room in the marketplace.
The problem, and it’s a big one, is that there is no market for these alternatives. This, I believe, is the reason that Obama wants coal driven from the market. Get the cheapest, best fuel OUT of the way, and there will be room for less efficient, less marketable alternatives.
I rarely expound on my political views, mostly because it’s a personal matter, but also because I don’t think my opinion will change yours. As I said, that’s not the point of this post. I will say that I will not ever support any politician whose idea of good energy policy is put my friends out of business. I will fight the power. As Captain Ahab famously said:
To the last, I grapple with thee. From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.
Of course, things didn’t turn out well for Ahab, and they may not for me. But they’ll know there was a fight.
In the 1970’s, my father worked in the coal industry as an environmental consultant for surface mines. People said then that there was 20 years of coal left. When I started practicing law 25 years ago, there was 10 years of coal left. Ten years ago, there was 10 years of coal left. Naysayers say that now there is 10 years of coal left. The future, its seems, follows its own course.
Long ago, I gave up predicting the future. I don’t know what will happen. I do know that the path we’re on isn’t good for Kentucky or the rest of the country, for that matter. Utility rates will increase, resulting in more government money spent to subsidize green energy or just to help people pay their bills. Countries that use coal–China and India to name just two–will have the advantage over us. Americans are the ones who can lead the way in continuing to improve clean coal technology. If we leave the market, we’ll be counting on the Chinese to take the lead. They are decades behind us in coal mining technology. There is no reason to think they will quickly embrace cutting-edge environmental technology, either.
A friend of mine and I joke that we are stagecoach salesman. Our grandchildren will look in wonder as we tell them about this burning rock. Of course, we don’t really believe that (most days at least). I’m an optimist at heart. I hold out hope that adults will enter the room at some point and realize that we can burn coal and improve our technology to minimize environmental impact. We’ve done it in the past.
In the meantime, I’ll fight the fight. Others will, too. Oh, and now you know why my blog is called the Coal Troll.