COAL AND THE STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA
by Phillip Tucker
It’s time to have an honest and open conversation about the state of coal in coal country. Without the politics of left or right.Some preface to this article: I will admit I am not from West Virginia. I’m from the Pacific Northwest. A lot of what I’ve learned has been from the people here, the local news, the actions of the people here, the struggle I see families have gone through, and through my own research of “Why?”. So let’s talk. I’m sure West Virginians know their coal history, so I don’t feel the need to delve too far into the history of coal. I’ll only talk about the relevant history as it comes.
In 2001, coal production was peaking. It continued to rise until 2003, when it hit an uptick of production in 2005. This lasted until 2008, when it again fell, due to the rise of regulation, but more so the cheap cost of natural gas. Natural gas was just cheaper, cleaner, and easier. In 2011, US exports had surpassed 100 million tons per year and coal mining employment had recovered to 133,000. New mines and and new export terminals were being planned and people began to breathe again. Then, the bottom fell out.
Between 2011 and 2016, coal production declined by 27% from 1.096 million tons to 730 million. Domestic demand fell by 30% and exports dropped as well, resulting in the biggest 5 year decline in postwar US history. This caused a dramatic impact on US coal companies and coal-producing communities. Throughout the US, 58,407 coal miners and contractors lost their jobs between that time, a 44% decline. West Virginia, however, was hit hard, losing 51% of their desperately needed coal jobs. Mingo county alone went from 1,411 coal miners (excluding contractors) to 438.
On top of the collapse, to add insult to injury, retirees have been impacted as well. The nation’s four largest coal companies – Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak, and Alpha Natural Resources – accounted for 52% of US coal production in 2011, valuing those companies worth $33 billon. By May, 2016, those companies combined market share totaled only $150 million. Peabody, Arch, and Alpha all filing for bankruptcy, along with dozens of other small companies.
As part of bankrupt proceedings, Peabody, Arch, Patriot (a Peabody spinoff), and Walter all attempted to escape their legacy pension and healthcare obligations to their respected retirees, and in most cases, they were successful. Screwing over people and family members we all know and love, all of whom have worked their asses off to provide for their families.
Politicians tried to create a federal backstop to shorten the risk of losing those benefits, but were blocked from recieving a full vote on the senate by Majority Leader (R)Mitch McConnell. Democrats in Congress passed a short term health benefits extension in 2016, but it’s still not nearly enough. On top of the insult and injury is the devastation that companies have done to the ecosystem of West Virginia. Changing hunting lands and landscape that is irreparable by blowing off mountain tops, sides, and fracking. However, that’s a different subject for another time.
In 2017, West Virginia became CNBC’s “America’s Worst State for Business”. Mining employment is down 40% in the past 5 years, with some parts of the state losing as many as 70% of their coal mining jobs. West Virginia is 1 of 7 states whose economies shrank in 2016. That being said, there is temporary good news. WVU’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research says that there will be an increase of production and overall stability over the next 3 years. But, what about after that?
With the cost of natural gas, solar, wind, and hydropower decreasing, and the cost of coal still rising, the industry will continue to decline well through 2030. It’s like putting a band-aid on a severed leg. Eventually you’re going to bleed out. The promise by politicians to bring back coal jobs is that of any typical politician. Bullshit. With coal set to decline for the forseeable future and the increase of automation and robots taking human jobs, how will coal jobs be brought back? It’s simple: they won’t.
These are no longer the days of men crawling into mines and shoveling it out. Now, giant machines do a majority of work that men used to do. Technology will only get better and take more jobs. West Virginia’s workforce isn’t necessarily in the position to adapt to the situation at hand, and there hasn’t been much effort to cut this problem off either.
The state hasn’t pushed workers into training for the future and jobs that are projected to be available. Instead, they push a narrative of “Everything will be ok,” and “We’ll get the jobs back,” even as you look around and see companies leaving and going out of business. According to the US Census Bureau, fewer than 12% of West Virginia’s residents have a bachelor’s degree, making them the least educated in the country. Most of the residents who do go on to get a degree don’t stay in the state to work. This creates a problem of sending innovators to neighboring states for work and business.
State programs who retrain workers have had limited success, with about 72% of partcipating members finding work within 3 months, leaving unemployment benefits as a strain on families trying to make ends meet. A state budget suggested including 6% cuts to education at the highest levels of the state, mainly WVU and Marshall. Also, 4.6% cuts to community and technical colleges were proposed, totalling 85 million dollars. This seems counter productive. Wouldn’t we want our friends and family here to become educated and open up businesses and jobs for fellow residents?
So where does this leave the State of West Virginia and it’s people? Well, it depends how you look at it, but even at the most optimistic, it’s not good. On top of how coal companies and politicians are fucking over everyone here, there is a huge heroin and opiod epidemic ravaging this state. Population is decreasing in ways that aren’t sustainable, due to the lack of jobs, training, education, etc.
In Washington, when I was growing up, my area was hit with the Methamphetamine epidemic and Big Lumber was screwing over residents as well. Now, it’s the best state in the nation for business. This proves that there is hope for West Virginia, but the communities at the local and State level need to band together to bring in different opportunities for jobs and training. Diversity is key.
If this State doesn’t adapt and overcome, I will always wonder, “What if?” West Virginia is full of pride for their contributions to this great countries of ours, as well it should be. Don’t let it die. Become better. Create a new generation of hard work to be proud of. Fight for your state, your friends, and family, but fight for yourselves. Your state is dying and needs to be revived. It’s up to you.