Do not try to lecture United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts about how the migration away from coal and other carbon-based fuels will be a “just transition,” one that promises that the green economy will provide job opportunities and economic growth in the ravaged coal fields.
Roberts, 74, has heard it all before, and he is only somewhat joking when he says he expects the second coming of the Savior before an immaculate “just transition.”
The West Virginia native has spent his life at the front of coal field fights, whether for union representation, safety underground or to protect the benefits of retired miners. Now he is embarking on another fight, and this one may determine if coal has a future or whether it will go the way of whale oil.
This week Roberts rolled out the UMWA Energy Transition Initiative. It is a Marshall Plan for coal communities.
The proposals include preserving UMWA jobs by employing carbon capture technology at coal-fired power plants, incentives to bring steel production back to this country to utilize metallurgical coal, various tax credits and loans to help sustain the industry, wage replacement, health coverage and pension credits for dislocated miners, infrastructure rehabilitation for coalfield communities, a national training program for dislocated miners and spouses, and on and on.
Roberts is no energy Luddite. He knows change is coming on the energy front, but it is his job, and the job of other leaders in coal country, to ensure that the communities and individuals who have given so much are not left behind.
“We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change,” Roberts said.
When Roberts laid out the plan Monday, he was joined by U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. That is a significant endorsement since Manchin, a key vote in the evenly split Senate, is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee which plays a major role in determining national energy policy.
President Biden has proposed a massive $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill. The American Jobs Plan includes funding for traditional infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, transit systems—as well as a laundry list of new programs and additional spending on human infrastructure—health, home care, education, etc.
If Washington is going to spend that much money on that many things—and there is a legitimate question whether it should—then carbon-based energy economies that have been ravaged by changes in the market and environmental regulations must be helped.
Biden, who hails from the coal mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania, should know better than anyone about the struggles of the coal industry and the impact on communities. The President should talk with Roberts and other coal community leaders about their needs and a potential way forward.
But the President should also avoid promising a “just transition.” The convenient and patronizing catch phrase has worn out its welcome in coal country.