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A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

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.

The plan to turn coal country into a rare earth powerhouse

By Maddie Stone - Grist, May 26, 2021

At an abandoned coal mine just outside the city of Gillette, Wyoming, construction crews are getting ready to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot building that will house state-of-the-art laboratories and manufacturing plants. Among the projects at the facility, known as the Wyoming Innovation Center, will be a pilot plant that aims to takes coal ash — the sooty, toxic waste left behind after coal is burned for energy — and use it to extract rare earths, elements that play an essential role in everything from cell phones and LED screens to wind turbines and electric cars. 

The pilot plant in Wyoming is a critical pillar of an emerging effort led by the Department of Energy, or DOE, to convert the toxic legacy of coal mining in the United States into something of value. Similar pilot plants and research projects are also underway in states including West Virginia, North Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky. If these projects are successful, the Biden administration hopes that places like Gillette will go from being the powerhouses of the fossil fuel era to the foundation of a new domestic supply chain that will build tomorrow’s energy systems.

In an April report on revitalizing fossil fuel communities, administration officials wrote that coal country is “well-positioned” to become a leader in harvesting critical materials from the waste left behind by coal mining and coal power generation. Several days later, the DOE awarded a total of $19 million to 13 different research groups that plan to assess exactly how much rare earth material is contained in coal and coal waste, as well as explore ways to extract it. 

“We have these resources that are otherwise a problem,” said Sarma Pisupati, the director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State University and one of the grant recipients. “We can use those resources to extract valuable minerals for our independence.”

Those minerals would come at a critical moment. The rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium, in particular, are essential to the powerful magnets used in offshore wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. A recent report by the International Energy Agency projected that by 2040, the clean energy sector’s demand for these minerals could be three to seven times greater than it is today. 

New Analysis Estimates an Equitable Energy Economy will Require $33 Billion to $83 Billion Investment in Workers

By staff - Utility Workers Union of America, May 4, 2021

As the Biden administration considers federal resources for coal workers and their communities, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) urge a set of comprehensive supports estimated to cost between $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years. The analysis, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape, underscores that a fair and equitable shift to a low-carbon economy requires intentional, robust, and sustained investments in coal workers, their families, and their communities.

Coal-fired electricity is down to 20 percent today from about half of the nation’s electricity generation a decade ago. With more closures on the horizon, a sustained and comprehensive set of supports is needed to ensure individuals who have powered America for generations can stay in their communities, prepare for new careers with family-sustaining wages, and can retire with dignity.

“For decades, the coal industry has simply locked its doors and forgotten the individuals and communities who rely on the coal industry and who exist in almost every state across the country,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “Approaching these closures with the right set of economic supports offers a better alternative to the chaos and devastation we’re seeing today.”

Recognizing coal and mining facilities often directly employ hundreds of individuals and many more indirectly across several counties, the economic and social infrastructure of a region undergoes lasting changes when facilities close.

“The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place,” said report co-author Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst who comes from a family of coal miners. “But solutions are readily available with forward-looking and visionary action by policymakers.”

As coal dies, the US has no plan to help the communities left behind

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, March 3, 2021

Here are two tales of the energy transition unfolding in coal country, USA.

In late 2019, Pacificorp, an electric utility that operates in six Western states, told Wyoming regulators it wanted to shut down several of its coal-fired power plants early and replace them with wind and solar power and battery storage. It said this plan would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills and promised to work with local leaders on transition plans for workers and communities affected by the closures.

Wyoming, a state whose economy relies significantly on coal mining and coal power, went on the defensive. State lawmakers had already passed a law requiring coal plant owners to search for a buyer before being allowed to close a plant. Now, with support from the governor, regulators ordered an unprecedented investigation to scrutinize Pacificorp’s analysis and conclusions. Ultimately they determined the plan was deficient — that the company had not adequately considered allowing the coal plants to stay open or installing technology to capture the plants’ carbon emissions.

Coal Mine Cleanup Works: A Look at the Potential Employment Needs for Mine Reclamation in the West

By Kate French - Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), July 2020

The collapse of the coal industry is devastating small communities across the Western United States, but reclaiming these mined lands quickly could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure according to our new report, Coal Mine Cleanup Works. The report estimates potential reclamation job creation for four Western coal states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming) and provides recommendations for decision makers to ensure cleanup is fully funded and employs the local workforce. 

These findings offer a rare bright light of opportunity for coal communities that are facing massive lay-offs and lost revenue as the coal industry crumbles. Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shuts down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.

Coal Mine Cleanup Works key findings include:

  • Surface coal mine reclamation could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure. These potential yearly jobs represent up to 65% of the current surface mining workforce in the four-state region. 
  • Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shut down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.
  • An important component of a just economic transition is having some immediate job creation solutions, like cleanup jobs, paired with longer-term job solutions.
  • Delayed and underfunded reclamation are the biggest hurdles to getting laid-off miners back on the job doing cleanup work.

Read the text (PDF).

Can Coal Make a Comeback?

By Trevor Houser, Jason Bordoff, and Peter Marsters - Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, and the Rhodium Group, April 2017

From the introduction: Six years ago, the US coal industry was thriving, with demand recovering from the Great Recession, and global coal prices at record highs along with the stock prices of US coal companies. By the end of 2015, however, the industry had collapsed, with three of the four largest US miners filing for bankruptcy along with many other smaller companies. While coal mining employment has been on the decline for decades – from a peak of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to 130,000 in 2011 – the pace of job loss over the past six years has been particularly dramatic. After campaigning on a promise to end what he called his predecessor’s “War on Coal,” President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in March 2017 ordering agencies to review or rescind a raft of Obama-era environmental regulations, telling coal miners they would be “going back to work.”

This paper offers an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal collapse, and then examines the prospects for a recovery of US coal production and employment by modeling the impact of President Trump’s executive order and assessing the global coal market outlook. In short, the paper finds:

  • US electricity demand contracted in the wake of the Great Recession, and has yet to recover due to energy efficiency improvements in buildings, lighting and appliances. A surge in US natural gas production due to the shale revolution has driven down prices and made coal increasingly uncompetitive in US electricity markets. Coal has also faced growing competition from renewable energy, with solar costs falling 85 percent between 2008 and 2016 and wind costs falling 36 percent.
  • Increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic US coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand is responsible for 26 percent, and the growth in renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent. Environmental regulations have played a role in the switch from coal to natural gas and renewables in US electricity supply by accelerating coal plant retirements, but were a significantly smaller factor than recent natural gas and renewable energy cost reductions.
  • Changes in the global coal market have played a far greater role in the collapse of the US coal industry than is generally understood. A slow-down in Chinese coal demand, especially for metallurgical coal, depressed coal prices around the world and reduced the market for US exports. More than half of the decline in US coal company revenue between 2011 and 2015 was due to international factors.
  • Implementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in US coal consumption, but only if natural gas prices increase going forward. If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.
  • While global coal markets have recovered slightly over the past few months due to supply restrictions in China and flooding in Australia, we expect this rally to be short-lived. Slower economic growth and structural adjustment in China will continue to put downward pressure on global coal prices and limit the market opportunities for US exports. Indian coal demand will likely grow in the years ahead, but not enough to make up for the slow-down in China. The same is true for other emerging economies, many of whom are negatively impacted by decelerating Chinese commodities demand themselves.
  • Under the best case scenario for US coal producers, our modeling projects a modest recovery to 2013 levels of just under 1 billion tons a year. Under the worst case scenario, output falls to 600 million tons a year. A plausible range of US coal mining employment in these scenarios ranges from 70,000 to 90,000 in 2020, and 64,000 to 94,000 in 2025 and 2030 -- lower than anything the US experienced before 2015.

These findings indicate that President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities. As such, the paper concludes with recommendations for steps that the federal government can take to safeguard the pension and health security of current and retired miners and dependents and support economic diversification. Attracting new sources of economic activity and job creation will not be easy, and even at its most successful will not return coal country to peak levels of past prosperity.

But responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the US coal sector—including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence—rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived. And then support those in America’s coal communities working hard to build a new economic future.

Read the text (PDF).

Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America’s Public Lands

By staff - Center for Western Priorities, July 7, 2016

The 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon provided the American public with a ringside seat to a disturbing trend on U.S. public lands: extremist and militia groups using America’s national forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges to advance their anti-government beliefs.

But these far right-wing organizations are not operating in a vacuum. To the contrary, the armed insurrection in Oregon and Nevada before—led by Ammon Bundy and the Bundy family—share the same foundations as land transfer schemes promoted by some elected leaders in states throughout the West. Both rely upon a philosophy based in vehement anti-government ideologies, both have connections to organizations that espouse armed resistance, both employ pseudo-legal theories to justify their actions, and both use scholarly support from conspiracy theorists and discredited academics.

Our nation’s parks and network of public lands are one of our finest democratic achievements. Americans see management of public lands as one of the things our government does best. But over the last four years, politicians and special interest groups in 11 Western states and in Congress have tried to seize many of these places and turn them over to state and private control.

The elected officials supporting state seizure of U.S. public lands couch their arguments carefully, but our research shows their close associations to extreme individuals, groups, and ideology characterized by antigovernment paranoia and a pseudo-legal approach to the Constitution.

Since the beginning of 2015, 54 land seizure bills have been introduced into Western states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. At least 22 state legislators with direct connections to anti-government ideologies or extremist groups were the primary sponsors on 29 of those bills.

Sitting at the hub of the movement and functioning as the bridge between extremism and the mainstream political debate are Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and their non-profit, the American Lands Council. A close analysis of Rep. Ivory and Sen. Fielder’s activities, and those of other active land seizure proponents at the state level, shows how these efforts are a functional part of an aggressive anti-government movement that will grow more potent if reasonable Americans don’t take action.

Read the report (PDF).

Will Wyoming companies get higher fines for workplace deaths? When a worker died on the job, the company paid a $6,700 penalty, inciting new discussion on the issue

By Dustin Bleizeffer - Wyofile, October 4, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Web editor's note: This story bears an uncomfortabvle resemblance to the death of Louisiana-Pacific mill worker, R Fortunado Reyes, on September 14, 1989, detailed here.

Brett Samuel Collins, 20, was working his last few days at a construction job near Sheridan before heading back to college classes when a trackhoe bucket struck him in the head. He died Aug. 20, 2012.

“He was finally settling down and thinking school was the answer,” said his grandmother, Mary Jane Collins, of Sheridan. Up to that point, Brett Collins had worked several seasons for the U.S. Forest Service, requiring him to miss fall semesters. He’d attended two spring semesters at Sheridan College. “The construction company job was so he could go to school for the whole year,” Mary Jane Collins said.

The employer, COP Wyoming LLC, initially received five citations related to the accident that caused Brett Collins’ death. Two citations were dismissed, and the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed $13,860 in fines for the remaining three. About a year later, the company and Wyoming OSHA settled on a much smaller fine; $6,773.

For the Collins family, the fine was an insult. They began to ask how a $6,773 fine was supposed to motivate companies to avoid violating critical workplace safety regulations.

A Gas Plant Fire Just Killed One Wyoming Worker; Here’s Why That Could Start Happening More

By Emily Atkin - Think Progress, September 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Four workers were caught in a storage tank “flash fire” at a natural gas production facility in Lincoln County, Wyoming on Tuesday. The incident, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake City’s University Hospital told ThinkProgress, left one worker dead, and two critically injured. The workers, who have not yet been named, were cleaning gas tanks when the fire broke out. The exact cause is still unknown.

The fire happened at a natural gas plant owned by Houston-based EOG Resources. Of the four workers who were caught in the fire, two were direct employees of EOG while others were contractors. It’s not yet clear if the worker who died was a direct employee or a contractor.

The incident is the latest fossil fuel-related workplace fatality in Wyoming, which has historically had one of the highest rates of oil worker injuries and deaths in the country. Worker death rates there have fallen — Wyoming oil workers are dying at half the rate they were five years ago — but so have the number of oil and gas rigs in the state. The correlation suggests that Wyoming may still be plagued with a problem it’s been facing for years: a high rate of occupational fatalities due to a lacking “culture of safety.”

The idea that Wyoming may have an endemic workplace safety problem comes from a 2012 report from state-hired epidemiologist Timothy Ryan, who analyzed occupational fatalities in Wyoming and found numerous problems with the overall business attitude toward safety. “Safety [in Wyoming] occurs as an afterthought,” he wrote. He found that from 2001-2008, 20 percent of all Wyoming’s worker fatalities came from the oil and gas industry, and that a whopping 96 percent of those deaths occurred when safety procedures were not followed.

Since then, progress appears to be happening, with the current state epidemiologist telling Wyoming’s local NPR affiliate last week that he’s optimistic — there’s been an increase in worker safety training programs and safety meetings, he said. But NPR’s report also pointed out that some aren’t convinced that the culture is really changing at all. And that’s a problem, because once-declining drilling activity is again starting to expand in the state.

If Wyoming hasn’t in fact changed its “culture of safety,” it will be even more susceptible to the dangers of what is widely known as an industry that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says is unprecedentedly dangerous to workers. Indeed, the fatality rate for onshore oil and gas workers is seven times higher than the national average, and injuries are even more common. Between 2007 and 2012, a total of 663 workers were killed in oil-related accidents nationwide.

Working with flammable substances and heavy machinery is one reason for this increased rate, but another reasons the oil and gas industry remains so dangerous could be the fact that oil worker deaths aren’t very widely publicized. An in-depth report on worker fatalities released by Wyoming Public Media last week pointed out that oil worker deaths rarely merit more than a few sentences in local newspapers, an unfortunate phenomenon driven by the nature of the deaths. Compared to a dramatic coal mine collapse — where dozens of workers are trapped or killed underground — oil worker deaths generally happen one-by-one, in small fires or explosions.

“They don’t get the same kind of attention as a disaster in a coal mine, where you have multiple miners that may be killed,” Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, told Wyoming Public Media. “Nonetheless, the worker who’s working in oil and gas is more likely to be killed on the job than a coal miner. That’s a fact.”

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