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A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

Coal Miners Strike in Alabama: 'Warrior Met Coal Ain't Got No Soul!'

By Nora De La Cour - Common Dreams, June 28, 2021

On June 22, Alabama coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America picketed BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, and Renaissance Technologies—the investment firms who finance and reap the profits from their employer, Warrior Met Coal.

Just as Amazon workers were concluding their disastrous union election in Bessemer, about 1,100 metallurgical coal miners were voting to strike Warrior Met Coal in nearby Brookwood, Alabama. The miners say Warrior Met and the New York hedge funds backing it have failed to follow through on their end of an agreement made five years ago.

Warrior Met Coal, Inc, was formed to purchase the assets of Walter Energy after that company was declared bankrupt in 2016. The sale terms stipulated that Walter Energy's remains would be purchased "free and clear," meaning Warrior Met was not obligated to employ Walter Energy's miners or recognize their union. Warrior Met agreed to retain the miners and honor their representation if they signed a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices. These included hefty cuts to pay and benefits paired with inhumane scheduling and firing policies. "You could be scheduled 7, 10, 20 days straight," says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.

Workers saw their hard-earned pensions swapped out for threadbare 401Ks. They lost much of their ability to earn overtime pay, all but three holidays off with their families, and 30 minutes of paid lunch time (lunch is eaten deep underground near dangerous methane gas and coal and silica dust). They could take three days off if a loved one died, but under Warrior Met's "four strike" policy a fourth day off would result in termination. Pay was slashed by between $6-$8 an hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Health insurance was cut from 100% coverage to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs—no small concern in one of the most physically hazardous professions, with high rates of life-altering injuries and 10% of workers suffering from black lung

Warrior Met assured the miners that if they accepted these losses, they would be taken care of in the next contract. So they endured the squeeze and delivered Warrior Met from its financial hardship, producing "ungodly amounts of coal" and billions in profit for the company and its investors. When contract negotiations began this spring, however, Warrior Met reneged on its promise, refusing to bargain in good faith. 

How laid-off coal miners are reclaiming their own economy

By Trevor Decker Cohen - Sharable, June 28, 2021

For generations, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia coal miners earned a good living. The money they made supported local economies in towns across Appalachia. And their labor down in deep mines brought light to the rest of the world.

But this prosperity came at a high price. Mountains were blown to pieces, rivers ran orange with mine tailings, and generations of miners suffered from black-lung disease. For over a century, the coal industry dominated the region’s economy and psyche, preventing much else from taking root. Now, it’s crumbling. Three of the four largest coal companies that mine half the coal in the US have gone bankrupt. There’s a gaping hole in parts of Appalachia where an economy used to be.

The transition away from extractive energy, dependent on a few commodities, is not as simple as retraining miners. “You can have training programs until you’re purple, but if you don’t have a place to work, it’s just kind of mean,” said Marilyn Wrenn, the development director at Coalfield Development. “It’s not like you can move out of coal mining and go work for the big data firm that opened up down the street.” Recovery from the legacy of coal’s decline requires a thorough regeneration of local economies from the ground up.

On one abandoned surface mine, a new story has emerged. A tractor dragged a piece of machinery, scraping its way along the scattered remains of a former mountain. A crew member pushed the accelerator, and a stone crusher chewed through the rubble. “It’s eating these rocks and turning it into garden soil—and it’s awesome,” said Eva Jones, who drove the tractor.

The machine was capable of crushing stones up to 16 inches in diameter, and in one day, could make up to three acres of soil. In the new dirt, another crew planted an orchard. It was a mix of blackberries, hazelnuts, lavender, and pawpaws. Sustainably managed chickens, hogs, goats, and honeybees grazed and pollinated the half-farm, half-forest. Over time, these practices will capture carbon in the soil and generate income for the local West Virginians who farm the former minelands.

These efforts were the work of two enterprises founded by nonprofit Coalfield Development—an organization that seeks to restore economic diversity in a region long beholden to the wealth of just one commodity. “Whether you think coal is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s not wise to have all your eggs in one basket,” said Coalfield’s founder, Brandon Dennison.

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

From Black Lung to BlackRock: Striking Alabama Coal Miners Protest Wall St. Financiers of Warrior Met

Kim Kelly interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan González - Democracy Now, June 22, 2021

More than a thousand coal miners at Warrior Met Coal are now in the third month of their strike in the right-to-work state of Alabama. The miners walked off the job on April 1 after their union, the United Mine Workers of America, called the first strike to hit the state’s coal mining industry in four decades. Workers are fighting for improvements to wages and benefits after they agreed to drastic cutbacks in 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took control of the mines after the previous company went bankrupt. Today a group of striking mine workers traveled from Alabama to Wall Street to protest the investment firms backing Warrior Met. “These are the companies that fund Warrior Met and allow Warrior Met to pay their executives millions of dollars a year, while the miners, the workers themselves who are creating that value, are struggling to get by on sometimes as little as $22 an hour,” says labor journalist and organizer Kim Kelly.

Just Transition Strategies: Workers and the Green Revolution

Just Minerals: Safeguarding protections for community rights, sacred places, and public lands from the unfounded push for mining expansion

By staff - Earthworks, June 17, 2021

Mining has harmful climate, equity, and resource impacts that, without reform, may ultimately undermine the benefits of transitioning to renewable energy. Building a sustainable economy based on clean energy gives us an historic opportunity to confront the legacy of injustice to Indigenous communities and damage to the public lands held in trust for future generations.

This report outlines how current federal minerals policy conflicts with the Biden-Harris administration’s clean energy and environmental justice agendas, and how those policies must change to ensure minerals are sourced in a way that better protects marginalized communities and the environment. The infrastructure to support the transition to low-carbon energy requires a variety of minerals—cobalt and lithium, among others. Just Minerals encourages government officials to prioritize recycling, reusing and substituting minerals needed for renewable energy technology over new extraction.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Updating the rules that govern mining on public lands must be an integral part of this administrations’ environmental justice agenda, until Congress acts to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Law. Even without Congressional action, the Biden administration has a variety of policy tools available to reduce the pressure to source minerals from irresponsible mines.
  • There is significant untapped mineral recycling and reuse potential available using current technology. With the right policies in place, we can create a more circular economy that may approximately halve global demand for certain minerals, like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, key to the clean energy transition.
  • Major consumers, including automakers and electronics companies, have also directed their suppliers to source more responsibly. Ford, Microsoft, BMW, and Daimler-Benz, among others, have committed to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), which independently audits and certifies environmental and social performance at mines.

Read the text (Link).

Deep-Sea Mining for Metals: Treading Carefully on the Path Toward Renewables

By Katherine Wilkin - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 8, 2021

As the push for renewable energy sources continues as a means to combat climate change, the demand for metals and minerals that make up critical components of clean energy technology will be on the rise. While some of these minerals can be obtained via deep-sea mining, the environmental impacts of such efforts are not well understood. In moving to a clean energy economy, governments and international non-governmental organizations need to research, understand, and mitigate the negative impacts to the environment and communities that can and will result from activities like deep-sea mining before allowing projects to go forward.

The United States Geological Survey has identified 11 metals and minerals as critical commodities in renewable energy technologies: arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earth elements. Silver, copper, selenium, silica, nickel, and cadmium are also used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Several of these critical metals and elements can be obtained via deep-sea mining from three different types of deposits: (i) cobalt-rich crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum; (ii) polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth elements; and (iii) sea-floor massive sulphides which contain copper, gold, zinc, lead, barium and silver.

Whether deep-sea mining is necessary to acquire enough minerals to fuel the renewable energy shift remains an unanswered question. In a May 2021 report on the need for minerals to power energy transition technologies, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2040, total mineral demand for clean energy will be four times current demand. Electric vehicles and battery storage technology account for about half of this predicted growth in mineral demand. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney indicated in 2016 that this increased demand for materials can be satisfied without utilizing deep-sea mining even under a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Further, Carbon Brief reported in 2018 that reserves of lithium and cobalt are likely to be sufficient to meet demand, but there are outstanding concerns of supply chain bottleneck causing delays. This is supported by the IEA report, which indicated that problems in supply of minerals is more likely to be a matter of quality rather than quantity. However, a 2018 study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure found that the current supply of critical metals is not enough to transition to a fully-renewable energy system in the Netherlands. Additionally, a 2019 projection of demand for cobalt, lithium, and silver looking as far as 2050 found that “reserves” of these materials—a portion of total available resources that can be extracted economically—will not be sufficient to meet demand for cobalt, and demand for lithium can only be met in a “potential recycling scenario” with improved recycling rates over what is being conducted at present.

With the growing demand for metals and materials for use in renewable energy technologies, concerns arise about the environmental impacts and environmental justice implications of mining on land. For example, cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the site of human rights violations, child labor, and severe environmental pollution. For that reason, deep-sea mining of these materials may present an option with fewer direct human impacts and environmental justice concerns.

The True Price of Coal

By Kim Kelly - The Real News, June 8, 2021

It’s been over two months since 1,100 union coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, hit the picket line, citing unfair labor practices against Warrior Met Coal. The strike itself has gained more national attention, which has also put a spotlight on the harsh tolls that coal mining takes on workers, their bodies, and their families. From work-related diseases like black lung and silicosis to methane explosions and roof cave-ins, coal mining has always been a dangerous job, and coal miners today still face many hazards. In the latest installment of “Battleground Brookwood,” TRNN contributor Kim Kelly continues her coverage of the strike at Warrior Met Coal by investigating the true price of coal production.

Driving Destructive Mining: EU Civil Society Denounces EU Raw Materials Plans in European Green Deal

By various - Yes to Life No to Mining, June 2021

A global coalition of 180+ community platforms, human rights and environmental organisations, and academics from 36 nations is calling on the EU to abandon its plans to massively expand dirty mining as part of EU Green Deal and Green Recovery plans.

In a statement released in the middle of EU green week, the coalition explains why, if left unchanged, EU policies and plans will drastically increase destructive mining in Europe and in the Global South, which is bad news for the climate, ecosystems, and human rights around the world.

“The EU is embarking on a desperate plunder for raw materials. Instead of delivering a greener economy, the European Commission’s plans will lead to more extraction beyond ecological limits, more exploitation of communities and their land, and new toxic trade deals. Europe is consuming as if we had three planets available”, says Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Coordinated by the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network’s European Working Group, the statement’s signatories are united in support of an urgent and rapid transition to renewable energy.

However, they argue that relying on expanding mining to meet the material needs of this transition will replicate the injustices, destruction and dangerous assumptions that have caused climate breakdown in the first place:

“The EU growth and Green Deal plans must consider a deep respect of the rights of affected communities in the Global South, that are opposing the destruction of their lands, defending water and even their lives. A strong collective voice is arising from affected communities around the Planet, denouncing hundreds of new mining projects for European consumption. Their urgent message needs to be heard in the North: Yes to Life No to Mining”, says Guadalupe Rodriguez, Latin American Contact Person for the global Yes to Life, No to Mining solidarity network.

“Research shows that a mining-intensive green transition will pose significant new threats to biodiversity that is critical to regulating our shared climate. It is absolutely clear we cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis. Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘green mining’. We need an EU Green Deal that addresses the root causes of climate change, including the role that mining and extractivism play in biodiversity loss ”, adds Yvonne Orengo of Andrew Lees Trust, which is supporting mining affected communities in Madagascar.

The statement sets out a number of actions the EU can take to change course towards climate and environmental justice, including recognising in law communities’ Right to Say No to unwanted extractive projects and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Read the text (PDF).

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