The fate of coal and coal miners is important in our part of Virginia. Sometimes we here in Montgomery County forget that coal miners are our neighbors. About 15 million short tons of coal were mined in Virginia in 2015, most of it here in Southwest Virginia in counties like Buchanan, Dickenson, Wise, and Tazewell, all of which are in the Virginia Ninth Congressional District like Montgomery County. The value of the coal mined in Virginia was about $1.5 billion in 2015.
Despite those apparently big economic numbers, however, the fact is this: coal is dying. Coal production is down about 66% since 1990, and coal prices are plummeting. Coal mining is too inefficient to allow coal to compete with cheaper, cleaner-burning, and abundant natural gas or with non-polluting sources of energy like solar and wind. In other words, coal is becoming less and less important to Virginia’s economy. Those miners face a black future in black coal.
All of this is relevant to this year’s presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton got herself in trouble back in May when she said, during a CNN town hall broadcast, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” When she later went to coal-country West Virginia, she was criticized for that remark by coal miners who had already lost their jobs in the shrinking industry. Republicans, of course, piled on even more, accusing her of wanting to destroy the coal industry.
What her critics failed to explain, however, was the full context of what Hillary said that night on CNN. Here are her actual words, in context:
So for example, I’m the only candidate [who] has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?
And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.
Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.
In other words, Hillary was explaining how she was going to help those unemployed coal miners! Donald Trump and the Republicans, on the contrary, have said absolutely nothing about helping them. They simply claim that the coal industry should just keep on grinding out coal.
But Trump and those Republicans don’t live in the real world.
The reality is this: coal mining is a dying industry. Coal is the 21st century equivalent of late-19th century whale oil: a fuel whose day has passed. The world has come to understand that coal is, and always has been, poisonous: it pollutes the air we breathe, it fouls our water, it kills those who mine it. (I know this personally: My uncle Eino died, slowly, agonizingly, of black-lung disease that resulted from his work in the mines of Pennsylvania.) Coal-burning’s contribution to global warming threatens the very life of the planet. Our grandchildren do not need coal. They should be protected from it.
But someone has to think about the coal miners who lose their jobs as their industry dies. Right now, in presidential politics, that someone is Hillary Clinton. Her response to their plight is to raise taxes modestly on the super-rich and put the resulting revenues to work building and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and establishing new sources of clean, renewable energy like solar and wind. That’s the kind of work the former coal miners could do: clean, useful, productive work repairing roads and bridges, revitalizing national parks, creating and sustaining new harbors, renovating and expanding the power grid, building clean-energy complexes for the 21st Century.
The coal industry does not have long to live. It is dying of its own poisons. That’s not Hillary Clinton’s fault; she simply understands the reality of the situation. And she wants to help. If I’m a coal miner, or the neighbor of a miner, I know there’s only one candidate who has expressed the least interest in my future and in the future of my children. That’s Hillary Clinton.
Photo: Jack Corn. Source: Wikimedia/National Archives and Records Administration. Miners line up to go into the elevator shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas coal company mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia. The man at the right wears a red hat which means he is a new miner and has worked below less than a month. His belt also shows less wear than the others. The miner at the left carries Red Man chewing tobacco, used by many of the men because they cannot smoke in the mines. They also prefer to carry their own water rather than use what the company provides.