The United Mine Workers of America released a remarkable document on Monday, an articulation of how the country’s largest union representing coal miners understood the future of the industry.
“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” read the report, titled “Preserving Coal Country.” “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.”
UMWA President Cecil Roberts appeared in Washington in conjunction with the report’s release, arguing for the protection of those coal mining jobs that remain. Of the 7,000 or so miners put out of work last year, though, his request wasn’t that they get back to work as miners. Instead, he sought federal support to find “any jobs that we can create that would be good-paying jobs for our brothers and sisters who have lost them in the UMWA.”
It is by now obvious that the decline in coal jobs since early 2012 is irreversible. The long-term trend was apparent in 2012, to be fair, given how the country’s energy generation was evolving. The advent of hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking) opened up massive natural gas reserves that led to broad availability of a fuel that was cheaper than coal and burned more cleanly, meeting both the business objectives of electricity generators and public pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, given increased concern about climate change. (That natural gas extraction itself resulted in the release of enormous amounts of the greenhouse gas methane only emerged somewhat later.)