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Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

(Working Paper #5) The Hard Facts About Coal: Why Trade Unions Should Re-evaluate their Support for Carbon Capture and Storage

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 6, 2015

The Hard Facts About Coal – Unions and CCS - Coal use has grown dramatically in the past 25 years and is today responsible for 44% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions.  It also has a dramatic impact on health and life expectancy.

Much hope has been placed in carbon capture and storage (CCS) to help address the CO2 generated by burning coal. Its proponents have included trade unionists, climate scientists, environmentalists, and governments looking for a way to greatly reduce emissions. And indeed, this evolving technology promises to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants and to permanently bury it in stable geological formations deep underground.

However, the promise of CCS has so far gone unfulfilled. In fact, the potential of deploying CCS—and the support it receives from unions and others—has been used as political cover for the development of new coal infrastructure. It seems increasingly unlikely that CCS will ever be deployed at an adequate level, leaving us with a locked-in carbon infrastructure without the promised mitigation.

Even if CCS is deployed at the levels needed to significantly reduce emissions, the environmental damage done by extracting, transporting, and burning coal will continue. Indeed, the “energy penalty” associated with CCS means that coal’s impact on human health and the environment may even be increased. In this context, trade union support for CCS risks alienating frontline communities and other allies who are taking the lead in building a movement for climate and environmental justice.

In this TUED Working Paper, Sean Sweeney, the director of the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at CUNY’s Murphy Institute, looks at CCS in the context of coal-fired electricity generation. He argues that rather than supporting CCS within a market-dominated policy debate, the trade union movement should be exploring a “third scenario,” one that challenges the neoliberal policy framework and the “growth without end” assumptions that dominates policy discussions on energy use. CCS may have a place in the transition to a post-carbon world, but this place must be determined democratically, and by public need.

Documents by Nick Mullins

Should Unions Strike for a Just Transition?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 10, 2017

After more than a decade of tenacious union lobbying of government negotiators, the words “a just transition of the workforce” was written into the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But now what? Encouraged by Paris, unions around the world have committed fresh energy towards giving Just Transition some practical significance, otherwise it will remain little more than a moral appeal for fairness in a corporate-dominated world economy where both morality and fairness are increasingly scarce.

This Bulletin features an article by TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney on the recent commitment made by unions in South Africa to strike for a “just transition.” However, the goal of the threatened strike is to halt the plan of the national utility (Eskom) to close 5 coal-fired power stations, a move that threatens 40,000 jobs.  Titled “When Stopping Coal Plant Closures Makes Environmental Sense” the article, which first appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of New Labor Forum, urges environmentalists not to support the closures, but to join with unions in opposing Eskom’s proposed actions.  Supporting the closures, argues Sweeney is “a poisoned chalice,”  that “will separate the environmental movement from the unions with whom it should be allied. And whatever environmental gains the 5 closures might produce at the margins in terms of avoided emissions and pollution levels will be more than offset by the impact of ‘jobs versus environment’ political fragmentation. This is why the Eskom closures should be opposed, but opposed in a way that might lay the political foundations for a more fundamental energy transition.”

Since the article was written, Eskom’s war with the private renewable energy companies has continued, with the utility pushing back against high-cost of power purchase agreements for wind and solar power. TUED union NUMSA and also the new South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) have called for a socially owned renewables sector in order to allow for a just energy transition from the present coal-dominated power system to one that can take advantage of South Africa’s abundant supplies of wind and sunshine.

Trump's Policies Won't Bring Back Coal Jobs -- They Will Kill More Miners

By Michael Arria - Truthout, February 4, 2018

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump consistently claimed that he would revive the coal industry, and since becoming president, he has consistently declared victory. "Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we've added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector," Donald Trump announced last June. "In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs."

Trump was presumably repeating a number he had heard mentioned by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who proudly touted the 50,000 figure in various media appearances last year. Pruitt's numbers are, in fact, way off. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the beginning of 2017 through that May, about 33,000 "mining and coal" jobs were created. That's obviously much lower than 50,000. Plus, most of those 33,000 jobs actually came from a subcategory called "support activities for mining." When Trump made that statement, the actual number of new coal jobs was about 1,000. Now it's about 1,200. Preliminary government data recently obtained by Reuters shows that Trump's efforts to increase mining jobs have failed in most coal-producing states.

In addition to coal production dropping off, solar and wind power are now a cheaper option, and more Americans are becoming aware of coal's devastating environmental impact. Even early Trump supporter Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the country's biggest privately held coal company, admitted that the president "can't bring mining jobs back."

Coal Country Knows Trump Can’t Save It

By Jeremy Deaton - Nexus Media, January 18, 2018

Since taking office, President Trump has been checking items off of a coal-industry wish list—ditching the Paris Agreement, stripping environmental safeguards, undermining workplace protections for miners. While the president’s rhetoric has raised hopes for renaissance of American coal, Trump’s policies have done little to revive the ailing industry.

Experts warn that the administration’s repeated promises to resurrect mining jobs distract from the hard work of rebuilding coal country. Appalachians understand that industry isn’t coming back, but Trump is making it hard for them to move on.

“Promising to bring coal jobs back and repealing environmental regulations at the national level is only harmful to these communities, because it gives them a sense of false hope and it would set them back,” said Sanya Carley, a professor of energy policy at Indiana University and lead author of a new study that examines how Appalachians are coping with coal’s decline.

Over the last three decades, the coal miners have suffered a series of blows, losing more than 100,000 jobs. The biggest hit came during the Reagan years when coal companies started replacing men with machines, allowing them to mine more with fewer workers. Then, hydraulic fracturing drove down the price of natural gas, making it cheaper than coal. More recently, the price of wind and solar power has plummeted, dealing another blow to the industry. Today, coal-fired power plants are shutting down right and left, and there is virtually nowhere in America where it makes sense to build a new coal generator.

Trump can nix every environmental protection on the books. It would do almost nothing to revive jobs. Miners’ biggest foe is, and has always been, the steady march of technological progress. There is perhaps no better symbol of the industry’s decline than the Kentucky Coal Museum, powered, as it is, by a set of rooftop solar panels.

The death of coal, inevitable though it may be, is a tough pill to swallow in parts of Appalachia, where coal permeates every facet of local life. “The coal industry sponsors local elementary schools. There are signs all over the place about different coal companies. They pay for sports, and the students wear their logos on their t-shirts,” said Carley. “We’re told the coal industry goes to high schools and essentially recruits people out of high school and sometimes encourages them to get their GEDs, but other times doesn’t. So, these students leave high school making $60,000 to $80,000 to $120,000 dollars a year immediately without even needing a college degree.” Today, those jobs are increasingly hard to come by.

Civil disobedience is the only way left to fight climate change

By Kara Moses - Red Pepper, January 10, 2018

Right now, thousands of people are taking direct action as part of a global wave of protests against the biggest fossil fuel infrastructure projects across the world. We kicked off earlier this month by shutting down the UK’s largest opencast coal mine in south Wales.

Last Sunday, around 1,000 people closed the world’s largest coal-exporting port in Newcastle, Australia and other bold actions are happening at power stations, oil refineries, pipelines and mines everywhere from the Philippines, Brazil and the US, to Nigeria, Germany and India.

This is just the start of the promised escalation after the Paris agreement, and the largest ever act of civil disobedience in the history of the environmental movement. World governments may have agreed to keep warming to 1.5C, but it’s up to us to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

With so many governments still dependent on a fossil fuel economy, they can’t be relied upon to make the radical change required in the time we need to make it. In the 21 years it took them to agree a (non-binding, inadequate) climate agreement, emissions soared. It’s now up to us to now hold them to account, turn words into action and challenge the power and legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry with mass disobedience.

The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal

By Gwynn Guilford - Quartz, December 30, 2017

The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.

A just transition from coal demands a cross-regional sharing of benefits and costs

By Natalie Bennett - The Ecologist, January 4, 2018

The world has to stop burning coal to produce electricity. We cannot afford the dirtiest fuel, killing with its air pollution, heating the planet with its carbon. That’s a reality that’s dawned in increasing numbers of countries, with the UK among them, who have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks.

In Britain, the reality is this signature is more symbolic than practical. The government had already promised a phase out by 2025 (which could be a lot earlier). In August only 2 percent of electricity was produced through coal and its financial cost is increasingly ruling it out.

But the politics of coal are very different in Poland, where 80 percent of electricity is still produced with highly-polluting fuel, and the government is one of the last in the developed world still building new coal-fired stations.

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

By Mark Hand - ThinkProgress, January 2, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

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