Let’s Clear the Air

President Obama rightly took the initiative in imposing limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Fossil fuel producers are screaming bloody murder, but the consensus of climate scientists is clear: Immediate action is needed to reduce carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere as we attempt to throttle down on global warming.

Using authority under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency on June 2 unveiled regulations that offer the states flexibility to get to the goal of cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 30% by 2030, compared with 2005.

In coal country, the new rules are seen as job killers and Obama is vilified for conducting a “war on coal” that threatens coal-mining families.

Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times that the Chamber of Commerce has predicted the cost of reducing carbon dioxide emissions will be more than $50 billion a year between now and 2030. That almost certainly is overstated and it’s supposed to sound like a big deal. But Krugman noted that the US has a $17 trillion economy, which will grow over time. “So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1%. That’s cheap!”

He also noted that the chamber’s estimate of costs per household — $200 per year — would be a fraction of 1% of the average American household income of more than $70,000 a year, which also is going to rise over time.

“One more useful comparison: The Pentagon has warned that global warming and its consequences pose a significant threat to national security. (Republicans in the House responded with a legislative amendment that would forbid the military from even thinking about the issue.) Currently, we’re spending $600 billion a year on defense. Is it really extravagant to spend another 8% of that budget to reduce a serious threat?”

Krugman also has noted that back in the 1980s conservatives claimed that any attempt to limit acid rain would have devastating economic effects. “In reality, the cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide was highly successful at minimal cost. The Northeastern states have had a cap-and-trade arrangement for carbon since 2009, and so far have seen emissions drop sharply while their economies grew faster than the rest of the country. Environmentalism is not the enemy of economic growth.”

At this point, Krugman noted, coal mining accounts for only 1/16th of 1% of overall US employment. “Shutting down the whole industry would eliminate fewer jobs than America lost in an average week during the Great Recession of 2007-9,” he wrote.

“Or put it this way: the real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And the coal workers lost.”

Employment in coal mines already has been reduced by coal companies, along with the tops of Appalachian mountains. Automation enabled by strip mines, which take the tops off the mountains and fill in the valleys below, has reduced the number of jobs from 177,848 workers in 1984, when 3,496 mines produced 895 million tons of coal, to about 88,000 jobs at 1,300 mines that produced more than one million tons in 2012.

Ironically, an EPA crackdown on mountaintop removal in 2009 — which the industry complained was the first shot of Obama’s war on coal — actually forced coal companies to return to more labor-intensive underground mining and put more miners back to work. Jobs increased from an average of 76,470 jobs under George W. Bush to an average of 88,152 under Obama, according to an analysis by Appalachian Voices.

West Virginia was the nation’s second leading producer of coal, and the leader in coal mining jobs, with an average of 22,626 under Obama, up from 17,976 under Bush.

Kentucky was the nation’s third leading producer of coal, and ranked second in coal mining jobs, with an average of 17,168 under Obama, compared with 15,826 under Bush, an increase of 8.5%.

It doesn’t make much sense to sacrifice the environment simply to keep coal mines open. And Central Appalachia’s coal appears to be running out, as many of the thick, easy-to-mine seams have been harvested. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that coal production in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will soon be half of what it was in 2008, plunging from 234 million tons to 112 million tons in 2015, Brad Plumer reported at WashingtonPost.com in November 2013.

Another big problem for Appalachia’s coal industry is competition from cheaper, low-sulfur coal from the West, particularly from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal-producing state, producing 388 million tons of coal nearly 40% of the nation’s coal production, from 18 mines that employed more than 6,500 miners in 2013.

Coal producers also face competition from cheap natural gas from shale fracking as well as renewable energy sources.

Emily Atkins noted at ThinkProgress.org (June 6) that the Chamber of Commerce report is based on a much more aggressive policy than the one the EPA proposed, and it fails to account for new jobs that would be created in the clean energy sector.

The EPA has projected that the coal extraction industry would lose as many as 14,300 jobs from 2017 to 2020 as a result of the new rule. However, EPA said renewable energy construction could increase by up to 19,100 jobs over the same time period. The EPA also estimated that up to 112,000 jobs would be created solely by the energy efficiency sector in 2025. There already are more jobs in the renewable energy sector, which created 78,600 green jobs in 46 states in 2013, according to Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). Solar energy employs nearly 143,000 total workers, as solar workers installed 4,751 megawatts of new solar photovoltaic capacity, good for roughly 29% of all new US electrical capacity.

Uncertainty over the federal Production Tax Credit slowed wind energy development, and 8,500 jobs created in 2013 were down from 12,600 in 2012, but the wind industry still employs 80,700.

There is substantial reason to believe that replacing more coal-fired plants with renewable energy will result in a net job gain, Atkins noted. Multiple studies over the last 10 years — from EPI to the University of California at Berkeley — show that the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, per unit of energy produced, and per dollar of investment than the fossil fuel-based energy sector.

In terms of solar energy, a 2004 Berkeley study showed that every $1 million of investment in the solar industry generates 5.65 person-years of employment over ten years, while $1 million invested in the coal industry generates only 3.96 person-years of employment over the same time period. For the wind industry, $1 million in investment equals 5.7 person-years of employment, the study showed.

Congress should take steps to help workers who already have been displaced from their jobs in coal mines and other industries and help them to transition to renewable energy or other industries. Extension of long-term unemployment benefits would be a good first step. The Department of Labor recently announced it would award $7.5 million to help Kentuckians who used to work in the coal industry find new jobs.

More can be done to address job displacement, but people in coal country should stop denying that transition is inevitable. And depicting the Obama administration as the enemy of coal country is neither helpful nor very smart politically. We might add that Kentucky could use a Democratic senator such as Alison Lundergan Grimes to represent the state’s interests at the White House, since neither Sen. Mitch McConnell nor Sen. Rand Paul have been able to play well with the Obama administration. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2014


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