The Biden administration has released a proposal to raise standards in nursing homes. Why one expert calls it the most significant development for the industry in decades -- and why it might still not be enough.
Guest Host: Rachel Martin
West Virginia primary voters handed likely Republican nominee Donald Trump another 31 delegates yesterday, and on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders scored a clear victory over Hillary Clinton. Many said that Clinton paid a price for her comments in March about the many coal mining jobs likely to be eliminated in the coming years and the need to help these workers find new work. In contrast, Donald Trump promises he can bring back the coal industry. Economic misery in West Virginia is wide-spread. Hundreds of coal industry workers have lost their jobs. Please join us to discuss West Virginia’s coal miners and economic prospects for the region.
- James Hohmann Reporter, Washington Post
- John Miller Reporter, Wall Street Journal
- Mary Anne Hitt Director, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign
- Kyle Lovern Managing editor, Williamson, Logan, Coal Valley, Gilbert, and Pineville, West Virginia, Civitas Media
- William Raney President, West Virginia Coal Association
MS. RACHEL MARTINThanks for joining us. I'm Rachel Martin sitting in for Diane Rehm. Exit polls in West Virginia yesterday confirmed an important theme. A big part of this presidential election is about jobs and in West Virginia, that means coal mining jobs. Joining me to talk about the regions coal mining industry and its future, Mary Anne Hitt. She's the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign and she's here in the studio with me.
MS. RACHEL MARTINAnd by phone, we are joined from Charleston, West Virginia, by William Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association. And from a studio at WESU in Pittsburgh, John Miller of The Wall Street Journal joins us as well. Thanks to all of you for being with us.
MS. MARY ANNE HITTThanks you for having us.
MR. JOHN MILLERThank you.
MR. WILLIAM RANEYGood morning.
MARTINBut first, we're going to get a little read on what the results from yesterday's elections mean and to do that, we have called up James Hohmann. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. He joins us on the line from his office in Washington. James, there were two contests yesterday in West Virginia, but also in Nebraska. Were there any surprises in either state?
MR. JAMES HOHMANNIt's good to be with you and there really were not any surprises last night, except the size of Bernie Sanders' victory in West Virginia. Polls showed that the race could be close. Sanders wound up winning by more than 15 points.
MARTINWhat do the exit polling tell us about the issues that were animating voters in that state?
HOHMANNWell, there's really this sense of disaffection. One of the things that's amazing is, you know, we think of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic Socialist from Vermont. But Sanders actually won by getting a majority of self-identified conservative Democrats. So the Democrat, you know, Democrat in West Virginia is very different than a Democrat in Massachusetts and these Democrats may not agree with Sanders on the issues, but they like that he's talking about political revolution.
HOHMANNThey feel that the country's on the wrong track. In many cases, they don't approve of President Obama and they want someone to sort of take on the status quo. Both Sanders and Trump, you know, who won handily, he's no longer challenged, tap into that and so I think one of the takeaways from last night is that Sanders and Trump's success is really about disaffection among the electorate, as much as -- or possibly more than ideology.
MARTINBut we should also point out, this is a state, demographically speaking, that fits Sanders. He's done well in these rural, mostly homogenous, white states.
HOHMANNNo, and that's totally -- that precisely the kind of -- the point I'm trying to make and you're right to point that out. In some ways, West Virginia is an outlier, but it's also true that Sanders has been winning in places like Oklahoma, you know, where only 20 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal. And I think that that's telling and interesting.
MARTINLet's talk a little bit about Hillary Clinton. She was there on the ground. She did a lot of campaigning in West Virginia. But it looks like she paid somewhat of a price for some controversial comments she made back in March in this televised forum when she talked about eliminating the kind of inevitability around the fact that coal industry jobs were going to go away. Any evidence that those remarks really did hit her?
HOHMANNYes. Absolutely. And so that's, you know, one of the amusing things about this is, one, she just made an observation about economic reality, which is that coal jobs have been going away, but among people who either, in the exit polls, either work in the industry or who have family in the industry, Bernie won by more than 20 points. And he won by fewer than 10 points now, in the adjusted exit polls, among those who do not have any tie to the industry.
HOHMANNSo unquestionably, there was some drag on Clinton and I think the coal comments, which Trump and the media in West Virginia had been hammering her on, were potent, even though, again, substantively, Sanders and Clinton's positions on coal are basically the same.
MARTINSo what are their positions? I mean, how is Sanders trying to differentiate himself, if they're saying the same thing?
HOHMANNSanders, you know, if you listen to the full context of Clinton's answer, this is a classic thing where the quote sounds terrible, it's made to be a soundbite in a television commercial, but what she was saying is the reality is the industry is dying and so we need to make sure that we give opportunities for the disaffected workers and that is what Sanders says, too. He just hadn't made a silly soundbite. You know, he talks a lot more about giving these opportunities to workers, job retraining programs, making sure new jobs come in, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is a lot of money in a state like West Virginia, which is economically downtrodden.
HOHMANNSo I think that $15 minimum wage message probably does break through with some of those workers. But, again, you know, neither of them is outlining sort of a detailed plan about these are the 15 things I'm going to do for coal miners. It's more generally getting an economy that works for everyone, lowering barriers to success. You know, these are folks who feel left behind. The average life expectancy for many of these kinds of voters has actually gone down. The opportunities for upward mobility have gone down.
HOHMANNTheir wages have been stagnant, even for the folks who have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs and that, again, is sort of this broader feeling that the way we're doing things now isn't working and so we've got to blow up the status quo. And I think that's, at its heart, the key of both Sanders' and Trump's appeal.
MARTINSo as you say, a lot of Trump's appeal is about blowing up the status quo, but he's making these grandiose promises about reviving the coal industry, that I imagine resonates with a lot of people in West Virginia. But is there meat on the bone? Has he put out any proposals as to how he plans to do that?
HOHMANNNo. He did wear a hard hat at his rally in Charleston, West Virginia, last week and he talks a big game. And it is one of the frustrating things for us reporters who cover him because we say, what is your plan, how are you going to do these things that you talk about? And there's not detail. There's not meat on the bone, as you say, and the question now, as we enter the general election phase of this campaign is, are voters going to demand to get some more substance and detail about how he's going to do it or are they going to be kind of content to just say, let's take on the system as it is, it's not working?
MARTINJames Hohmann's a reporter with The Washington Post helping us walk through the results of yesterday's contest in the presidential election. James, thanks so much for talking with us.
HOHMANNMy pleasure. Thank you.
MARTINWe're going to turn now to our panel and I want to start with you, Bill Raney. We heard a little bit about it there from John Hohmann, but can you paint us a picture of the economic situation West Virginia today?
RANEYYes, ma'am. I'll tell you what, it's dramatic. It's drastic, in particular in the southern coal fields, it's very devastating and has been for the last eight years, literally. I mean, it's -- everybody says we're on the decline and the opponents want to say we're dying. And I presume Mary Anne will probably say that as well. But, you know, it's just very, very sad because the majority -- we've been through the ups and downs in this industry over the years and that has been typically market-driven.
RANEYAnd this time around, for the last seven and a half, literally, eight years, the government has had its boot on our throat and through regulation, through administrative actions, through the lack of action has affected the market that we've had, as well as our production and that has caused the jobs to disappear. We've lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 jobs over that period of time.
MARTIN10,000 jobs in coal?
RANEYIn coal, yes, ma'am. And it's -- and those are 80 to $100,000 a year jobs in rural areas where you can't duplicate that and the people want to stay there. And it reaches very deep into the economy. You can use multipliers of somewhere between three and eight depending upon how close you are to the operations as to the ripple effect it has in the economy.
RANEYSo when you take all of that and you look at the unemployment numbers here in West Virginia, then it's very, very dramatic and it's having a huge impact on the state budget because about 10 percent of the state budget depends upon the severance taxes from our industry, coal, and another big chunk depends upon the natural gas industry, which is also depressed at this point. So it's a difficult time right now, very difficult.
MARTINYeah, John Miller, the largest U.S. miner, St. Louis based Peabody Energy Company, declared bankruptcy back in March. You've written a lot about this. And there have been a string of others, right? Can you just tick those off quickly?
MILLERSo pretty much all the big, major listed American coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past 12 months. We've seen Arch and Alpha, which mainly mine in Appalachia, Patriot and Walter, also Appalachian miners. And they've basically thrown in the towel because coal prices are no longer enough to sustain their big corporate models. And while some of their mines are profitable individually, they've taken on too much debt and they have to cut bait at this point and restructure.
MILLERAnd we're gonna see a much smaller coal industry in the future, a fragmented coal industry. And we're basically seeing the long, slow decline and possibly the death of a fossil fuel over the century, but coal is not going to go quietly into the night. You're still going to see mining, especially in Wyoming, Illinois and, to some extent, in Appalachia. Although in Appalachia, the problem is not just regulation, although there's been some of that, but it's mainly the shale gas boom, which has brought gas prices way down and given power companies an incentive to buy way more gas and not coal.
MILLERAnd this year is the first year in history, 2016, where more of the grid will come from gas than coal. Until this year, coal has always been the number one supplier of electricity to Americans. As recently as 2008, it accounted for half of all the power in this country came from coal and now it's down to 32 percent with 33 percent coming from gas.
MARTINJohn Miller's a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. We're going to continue our conversation about the future of coal and what the coal industry looks like, in particular in West Virginia. Stay with us. We'd love to hear from you. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com. And, of course, join us on Facebook or on Twitter. You are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's Weekend Edition, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about coal this hour, and I want to bring in Mary Anne Hitt into the conversation. She's the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. She is also a resident of the great state of West Virginia, but she happens to join me in our studio in Washington. Mary Anne, how do you see what's happening in West Virginia? I mean, I guess the big question is, from your vantage point, do you think the coal industry is dying or dead?
HITTWell thanks again for having me, it's great to be with you, and I do live in West Virginia. My daughter is an 11th-generation West Virginian through my husband's side of the family. So I'm very deeply committed to finding a path forward for the state and for the region. And as Bill Raney mentioned, our coal miners, our region has sacrificed a great deal to power this country for the last century. We owe the workers, the families, the communities a huge debt.
HITTAnd at a time when America is shifting away from coal, as John described, coal is not going to be coming back, the best way to honor the sacrifice that has been made in the region is to create a path forward for a more diverse and resilient 21st-century economy. Bill may have attributed it to, quote, the government's boot on the industry's throat, but from my vantage point, the two big factors that have been driving this shift have been competition in the marketplace, wind and solar are now cheaper than coal in a lot of places, and the price of wind and solar is just going to keep going down, and it's been grassroots advocacy.
HITTYou've got -- had people who have kids with asthma living next to a coal plant, people living next to mountaintop removal mines with high levels of cancer and birth defects, people with contaminated water from coal ash. When they win campaigns to phase out coal and replace it with clean energy, they're -- they're not going back. And so we now have a third of the coal plants in this country announced to retire. We don't have any new plants being built. We've got a huge amount of grassroots advocacy that's going to keep pushing forward, and the competition in the marketplace for the coal industry is just going to keep getting tougher.
HITTSo we really need that transition pathway. We need the resources, we need the leadership, we need the plan, and that's the -- that's the best way to honor everything this region has given to the country.
MARTINAnd I want to talk about what those alternatives look like, but as you mentioned, I mean, we still as a country depend on coal for about a third of our energy. So while alternatives, wind, solar, maybe the price point is coming down, it still hasn't come down far enough. I mean, we still need coal to some degree.
HITTWe have seen some incredibly dramatic changes in this country in just the past five years, as John mentioned, with coal going from half of our electricity to a third. And you are right that there are still a lot of people living next to mountains that are being blown up by mountaintop removal. There are still a lot of people living next to coal plants where their kids are struggling with asthma. So we still have more work to do, but the trends are going to continue. The grassroots advocacy is going to continue. And again, wind and solar are now out-competing coal all across this country. It's not just in a couple of isolated pockets. And they have really gotten to a scale economically that we've never seen before in history.
HITTAnd so the economics of coal, if you're not building any new plants, the existing plants are facing grassroots opposition and increasing competition. The economics for those remaining plants are not going to get better, and the economics for wind and solar are just going to keep getting stronger and stronger. So there is a profound shift underway that we're not going to reverse, and it doesn't matter if we put a different person in the Oval Office. It doesn't matter if a politician makes a promise. The reality -- and people on the ground in Appalachia know this.
HITTPeople on the ground know that the industry isn't coming back. They want to transition. They want the resources and the leadership, and they're doing a lot of really inspiring, innovative, grassroots projects to diversify the economy. But they are facing a headwind in doing so, and until we get the resources and the leadership we need in the region, that diversification is going to be harder than it needs to be, and that should be our first priority.
MARTINWilliam Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, you talked about government intervention, government regulations as being -- having somewhat of a strangulating effect on the industry. Can you be more specific? What has happened that you think has led to the untimely demise of coal?
RANEYWell, it started out, you know, Mary Anne, her project, Beyond Coal, has been very successful, you know, and I think one of the reasons is this administration has pretty much followed apparently what they wanted to do. And she uses the term of blowing up mountains and all that sort of thing and doesn't talk about restoring them and putting them back into very productive use. So, you know, that -- that's the sort of thing. It all started out, Rachel, in affecting the producing end of our industry, and they would either not make decisions to issue permits so that people can continue their operations, affecting the capital investment, and early on that was the way it impacted.
RANEYAnd then as the administration went on, they began to take on the power-generating units and the utilities and scaring them to death with new regulations. And that caused them to back away, as she said. There are not any new coal plants being planned at this point, and it's because of government regulation. The -- we've had an enormous advancement in the reduction of emissions over the years, but what they do is they keep moving the goalposts on us. So every time we achieve one, then they come up with a new set of standards.
RANEYEverything that has occurred over the last eight years has been administrative. I mean it's -- they've done it outside or at the objection of Congress. Very little of it has been statutory and -- if any. So, you know, that's -- the Clean Power Plan is administrative. The Stream Protection Act is administrative. The mercury regulations are administrative. You know, EPA's actions through their regulations and their lack of decisions on permits for new power plants or for new mining operations or expanded ones, it's all administrative.
RANEYAnd those are the kinds of things that have occurred and have diminished, you know, the financial institutions' confidence in the industry because they just don't believe the government is going to support it, at least not under this administration. So it's had a dramatic effect on it. The other thing I want to say is that, you know, it sounds as though Mary Anne and -- she's given a eulogy for us, and I don't -- we're not quite ready for that, I don't believe. We might be struggling and having some challenges, but take a look at what happened in the election last night here...
MARTINSo you think...
RANEYAnd I don't think the grassroots is nearly as strong as what she would like for it to believe here in West Virginia.
MARTINBut then let's just move on, Bill. What is the alternative? If you say that the industry isn't dying, it's not time to write a eulogy, how do you see it transforming?
RANEYWell, the folks that run these power plants tell us that they still prefer to run a coal plant. And, you know, the cheap natural gas, it's about to break that industry, too, because it's so cheap. They're running these bigger plants that are not designed for long-term, year-after-year, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week kind of operation. And you get into single supply, you get into one pipe coming in, you get into security questions and that sort of thing.
RANEYSo we think we've got to stay with coal. We need everything. We're not diminishing that in any sense of the word. We hope the economy comes back and gets better than what -- you know, some people think it's good, but by golly, it's not. We're not making a whole lot of things in this country these days, and those manufacturing plants are the ones that consume a lot of electricity. In some cases they need a lot of steel for whatever the product may be. And that just isn't occurring here. It's not occurring across the world, either, because we have a very robust, or have had a very robust export market for our coal.
RANEYAnd the biggest thing, perhaps, Rachel is the fact that we've got the best coal miners in the world right here in West Virginia and probably the best quality coal you can find about anywhere in the world, and we think Europe and others are turning back to that. So we -- we're looking at that as a possibility. Not you remove the subsidies from wind and solar, and it gets to be pretty expensive...
MARTINWell let me ask John Miller of the Wall Street Journal. You heard Bill Raney say just then that he thinks Europe is looking towards coal. But don't we hear a lot about how Europe is looking more towards alternative energy sources? I mean, what has your reporting born out about global markets and how they look at fossil fuels?
MILLERSo in Europe, I actually did a story a couple years ago about the biggest power plant in the UK, which was importing a lot of American coal. There's sort of a lag time between implementing their regulations, which do aim to cut down on carbon emissions, and the practicality that the continent needs power, and they have a lot of coal-fired power plants. So for the meantime, they are importing a lot of coal. It comes from South Africa and from South America, and a fair amount does come from the U.S.
MILLERIn the last five years, global coal markets have declined a lot, and one thing that should be mentioned that was in 2011, there was actually a mini-boom, and the U.S. coal industry was doing very well. And Bill is right, there is still a lot of coal mining going on. I should say that as far as regulation goes, yes, obviously the Obama administration has been stricter than a Republican administration might be, but it's not -- it's not stopping coal mining. There's still a lot of coal mining happening, and I would say it's probably more market forces that have led to that decline.
MILLERNow one thing that should be mentioned, too, is that, you know, the world's going to consume 48 percent more energy in the next 30 years, 48 percent more, and a lot of that is going to come from coal. Asian countries are importing a lot of coal. Exports to India, imports by India, were up 18 percent last year. And that is really going to fuel a lot more coal mining, and some of it will come out of the U.S.
MILLERYesterday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to build a big new coal export terminal on the west coast, and that will stop a lot of the planned exports coming out of Wyoming. As far as Appalachia, there are coal export terminals on the east coast, but right now global markets are in a bit of a tailspin, especially because China has been importing a lot less. Imports by China were -- go ahead.
MARTINSo -- but Mary Anne, I want to put this to you. We just heard John say that there are some global markets that are demanding more coal. So is it premature to be pointing to American coal mines and saying we need to shut you down?
HITTWell, the industry has been holding out a promise of overseas markets having an appetite for our coal for decades -- over a decade, definitely since the wave of new coal plants were stopped, which I would add 184 new coal plants were stopped in this country, primarily by grassroots advocates who did not want these big new sources of air and water and climate pollution in their backyards.
HITTSo the hope was always that overseas markets would develop this new, insatiable appetite for coal. That hasn't happened yet. It's not on the horizon. And China is severely curtailing its both coal -- new coal plants and its own coal mining. You know, we had 184 coal plants on the drawing board here. Only a handful were built. I expect in the developing world, with all these coal plants on the drawing board, we will only see a handful of them get built. So it's always been held out there as sort of a last hope, but the reality is coal here in this country is on the decline, clean energy, again, is incredibly competitive.
HITTThere's a huge amount of public demand for clean energy. And those big factors are not going to change, and those oversea markets are not going to be the salvation.
MARTINI'm Rachel Martin with NPR's Weekend Edition, and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can of course find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And at this point I want to bring in Kyle Lovern. He is the managing editor for Civitas Media, which is a regional media group, and he's based in West Virginia. These are issues, of course, he thinks an awful lot about, and he has spent a lot of time with coal miners. And I want to bring you into the conversation.
MARTINKyle, we were talking about what -- how life is changing for coal miners. Can you give us a picture of how they have seen their livelihoods change over the last decade in particular and what alternatives they're looking at?
MR. KYLE LOVERNYeah, and thanks for having me. You know, this part of the country here in Appalachia, especially southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the economy is really in bad shape. And coal miners are struggling. You know, you have men that were making $75,000, $80,000 a year to mine coal, and now they don't have a job, but there's no other jobs for them to go to. You know, they talk about retraining them, putting them in another industry, but there's no other industry here. So they're really suffering.
MR. KYLE LOVERNTheir families are suffering. As Bill said earlier, you know, it's a domino effect, too, because when you shut down coal mines, then that hurts the railroad industry, that hurts the coal trucks that haul the coal to different places, it hurts the retail merchants, and now it's hurting the education system because the coal severance tax is not there, so we have had layoffs of teachers in almost every county here in southern West Virginia.
MR. KYLE LOVERNSo it's just not a pretty picture, and it's tough. And I think that's why somebody like Donald Trump has come in, and he says -- you know, he's going let them mine coal again, and he's popular, and then with Clinton and her recent comments when she was -- a couple months ago about shutting down the coal mines and putting coal miners out of work, made her extremely unpopular here.
MR. KYLE LOVERNAnd, you know, in 2008, she defeated Barack Obama in West Virginia handedly, but then here last night, she gets beat by Bernie Sanders. So it shows you the difference.
MARTINThings are changing.
LOVERNIn eight years of what has happened.
MARTINI want to bring in some callers into our conversation, and I want to go to Patrick, who is on the line from Indianapolis, Indiana. Patrick, you're on the air.
PATRICKHow are you guys doing?
MARTINWe're doing well. How are you? Do you have a question for our panel?
PATRICKYeah, I work in the coal and natural gas industry as a welder, and I go all around the world repairing a specific piece of equipment. So it's brought me to almost every type of coal-fired power plant, coal gasification plant and natural gas plant. I think there's -- I think there's something that's missing on the coal side and that your guy in the panel there is missing is that our planet needs carbon to do a number of tasks. So to power -- to use coal just for power, I think, is a transition that we need to make away from and maybe into a different industry using this element in a different manner. And I also think that the woman from the Sierra Club has a few things wrong, as well, with photovoltaic sensors and wind technology, the efficiencies aren't there as much. And I'd like to take a closer look at natural -- or nuclear energy. So I'd like to hear what you guys say about that.
MARTINThank you so much for your call, we appreciate it. I'll start -- I'll put that to you, Bill Raney. You know, do you see the need for better alternatives for coal miners? The caller pointed out that he just -- he thinks that there are other alternatives out there that aren't being pursued for the use of coal.
RANEYWell yes, I do. You know, I've had -- the old-timers have told me that, you know, it's just -- it's a shame that we use coal to burn in a furnace to make electricity because it has so many valuable byproducts. The trouble is that under the current EPA and for years and years, you can't -- you can't build or get licensed those -- what we call coke extraction plants that take all the elements of the coal that is there and make those valuable byproducts. So people have shied away from and don't pursue those because there's such a long time from when you decide you want to do such a plant or do such a development, and you would ever actually get to the bricks and mortar end of things and get some return on your investment. So that -- that hasn't occurred as it should.
RANEYBut he's absolutely right. It's a valuable resource. You know, the other thing, Rachel, is the fact that America has more coal than any other country in the world. We have about a quarter of the world's reserves. And you would think that everybody, and lord I'd just love to put Mary Anne on our bus, but...
MARTINAnd we will, we will do that when we come back after the break. You are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Your calls and questions coming up. Please stay tuned.
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about coal this hour and, in particular, the future of the coal industry in the state of West Virginia. And I want to turn to another caller who, I believe, is raising a question about the health of miners because we have heard so often, over the years, about how dangerous this work can be. I'm going to turn Nareet from Houston, Texas. Nareet, you're on the air.
NAREETYeah, thank you very much for taking my call. And this is another dimension, of course, to the conversation and I'd like to ask if any of your panel members has data about, one, the average lifespan of the coal miner as compared to the average American person and, two, the comparison of lifetime healthcare costs of the coal miner as compared to the average American.
MARTINThank you so much for your call. Average lifespan and healthcare costs, is that something that you've looked into, Mary Anne?
HITTWell, what I can say for sure is that we've been talking a lot about the sacrifices that the miners and their families make and sacrificing their health through breathing problems, like black lung disease is a very real cost of a life in the mines and so one of the very important things, as this transition away from coal to clean energy happens, which I maintain it is going to continue to happen, we have to make sure these companies don't abandon their commitments to these workers' healthcare and their pensions, as well as the cleanup of these old mine sites.
HITTAnd, unfortunately, we have been struggling in the region with companies pulling up stakes and abandoning those commitments and for those workers, those pension benefits and those health benefits are a matter of life and death. And so making sure -- and it's gonna take courts and the administration and Congress and advocates working very hard to insure that those commitments for pensions, for healthcare and for reclamation of these mining sites are carried through because without those commitments, it's going to be even harder to create a path forward for the region and for this economic transition that is -- I would argue is the answer to a lot of the problems that we're facing in the region.
MARTINJohn Miller, is this something you've looked into, the health effects of this kind of work?
MILLERA little bit. And you know, the big tragedy of Appalachia is that in these towns, it's not just in West Virginia, but in Ohio and Pennsylvania, too, people miss the dirty, stinky jobs because they paid $25 an hour and had benefits. You know, what's left is service jobs paying $10 an hour without benefits and probably a big reason for the popularity of somebody like Bernie Sanders.
MILLERAnd, you know, natural gas does not employ as many people as the coal industry does to produce an equivalent amount of energy. So as the Merle Travis song goes, you know, "man will have lust for the lure of the mine" because their paycheck is so good. But there are definitely health costs and black lung disease is a problem and -- but it's a bargain -- it's a devil's bargain that people have been willing to make for generations.
MILLERAnd, I think, as Bill might say, they're probably still willing to make it. But coal mining does have a cost. And I've been down in coal mines and you can see the particles floating through the air and, you know, I can't imagine spending eight hours a day in a mine like that.
MARTINMary Anne brought up pensions. John, when coal companies go bankrupt, what happens to employee pensions?
MILLERSo it gets hashed out in bankruptcy court, but basically what happens in a bankruptcy is the creditors want their money back and that money has to come from somewhere. And because the company is bankrupt, it doesn't have enough money to fulfill all its obligations and typically, pensions are some of pieces that get cut. And so while these mines will keep on operating, the missing money is going to come out, partly, of workers' pension funds.
MILLERAnd there's a big fight right now over whether the government should cover the cost of these miners.
MARTINI want to turn to an email that we've gotten from Doug in Washington D.C. He writes, "has the government and the industry given up on the ideal of a extracting CO2 from coal emissions as it is burned? Has it been proven to work efficiently anywhere?" So this whole idea of clean coal. Bill, is this something you can address?
RANEYYeah. I can. I mean, they've talked about it and they've tied it into the global warming, which they now, of course, turned to climate change because the globe wasn't warming. But CO2 -- there just isn't any technology that captures CO2 economically at the volumes that are necessary and that's why I say they keep moving the goalpost on us so CO2 became the thing and I literally believe that it became a standard of EPA that they put out there because they knew that there was not such technology available.
RANEYSo again, that diminishes the confidence of anyone having a coal-powered plant. There's a lot of beneficial uses that have come from small captures of CO2 and CO2 is used in a lot of places. We exhale CO2 every time, you know. And when you look at the result of what this clean power plant does in America by punishing our industries and our regions and you weigh that against the devastating impact it's had on our economy and you look at what the beneficial or supposed climate impact's going to be, it just isn't there.
MARTINJohn, you want...
RANEYI mean, you just can't balance that in any sense of the word.
MARTINUh-huh. John Miller, you wanted to get in on this.
MILLERCarbon capture storage, which basically means capturing the carbon emissions and burying them, is a technology that exists, but it's tremendously expensive and it basically doesn't really work yet. There's a big power plant down in Mississippi, Kemper, that tried doing this and they're way over budget. And it's not something that's feasible right now, although, you know, ideally it's great. Obviously, coal was also used to make steel. I should point that out. And one problem in the last few years has been that the steel industry has been hurting and that's meant they've bought way less coal to make steel.
MARTINI want to turn to another email. This one is from West Virginia and -- oh, I'm sorry. This is from Bob in Indiana and he writes, "as a displace auto worker from Michigan, Ohio and now Indiana, I can tell you that my fellow workers who couldn't find it in themselves to accept the reality of the situation had a much harder time dealing with their changing lives than those who did. Progress for good or bad is progress."
MARTINBill Raney, what do you say to that? I mean, in some way, are you in denial about the changing global marketplace and coal's place in it?
RANEYYeah, I am in denial. I think it's realistic to be in denial 'cause I think coal's going to have a place in it. I said we got the best coal miners in the world here in West Virginia and Appalachia of anyplace in the world. We have the highest health standards, safety standards, environmental standards of any coal mining country anyplace and I think that we're going to continue to find that, just as John indicated we use it to, you know, steel is a big thing. And if we can get the economy straightened out -- and I can't do that and you can't do that, but maybe collectively, we can, where we begin to need products, that we're going to maintain being in denial.
RANEYAnd, you know, the big reason is, is because, well, you see what the results of the election were with Hillary and she was wanting to bring money down here and give everybody a check. And, you know, these folks don't want -- these best coal miners and the ones that depend on a mine operating every day, they don't want a check. They want to work. And they talk about the health effects. Well, I'm telling you what, the coal miners that are working are a whole lot healthier than the ones that aren't.
RANEYAnd, you know, if you've got a place to go every day and you've got a meaningful -- and they love what they're doing. They love what they're doing. To you -- to the outsiders, they think it's dirty and it's -- I'm telling you, there's not a more professional workforce and more camaraderie than any place in this world than you'll find with a team of men and women...
MARTINAnd I'm sure, Mary Anne, you'd probably agree, I mean, that this is not just a job. This is a way of life. This is a culture.
HITTIndeed. And that's why making this transition is a challenge for the region. It's a challenge for our political leaders. The good news is there are two specific proposals on the table that would help. There is a bill in Congress called the reclaim act, which was introduced by Hal Rogers. He's a Republican from eastern Kentucky, head of the appropriations committee that would put $1 billion from the abandoned mine lands fund into economic development projects over five years.
HITTAnd there is a project -- a proposal from the White House, a $5 billion package called Power Plus that includes both the billion dollars in reclamation funding, as well as a lot of funding for worker retraining, shoring up the pensions, shoring up the healthcare. You know, I have spent almost all my life in Appalachia. I live in West Virginia. I understand the pride people feel in their work and in the part of the country that we call home. And things are changing and as the previous caller, the email said, we have to be honest about that change and we have to get out in front of it and we need a transition plan in place.
HITTAnd we need to be fighting hard for bringing the resources into the region that are going to allow us to stay in our communities, to stay in our homes, to have really good jobs in the 21st century economy.
MARTINCan these people be turned into more general kind of energy workers? We got another email from David in North Carolina who said just this, "coal miners are energy workers. The future of energy is not coal. Forward-thinking legislators," he writes, "might seek to locate energy industry jobs in coal country, factories that build solar panels, wind blades, new battery technology." Is that happening at all?
HITTI know people who are working every day to try to bring those industries into the region and it is more challenging because the coal industry has sort of run the show for so long, frankly. But there are people in the region, both people who are living near some of these mountain top removal mines that have been living with the pollution and the cancer and the birth defects for a long time who would much rather see a wind farm up on their mountain and are still fighting for that.
HITTAnd there are entrepreneurs who are really committed to the state and really committed to the region who are trying to create these new pathways. So there is work, but what's missing is resources at the scale we need them, which can come from Congress, and political leadership in the region to talk about the fact that this change is happening and we need to get out in front of it.
MARTINJohn Miller is...
MARTINYeah, go ahead. Bill.
RANEYThis is Bill. The amazing thing about, you know, what Mary Anne is saying is that both of those huge things -- and we're in agreement. We'll do the Hal Rogers thing and the Congressman Jenkins thing and we want to take every advantage of that, diversify as much as we can. We'll accept anybody. Anybody that Mary Anne's got that wants to build a factory here, then I say come on because they're gonna use electricity and they're gonna -- and we're absolutely in favor of expanding in any sense of the word.
RANEYBut the amazing thing is both of those programs she mentioned got their money from coal production. And the Beyond Coal Program wants to stop coal production, which is the very way you finance these kind of things. And, you know, if you want to look at us as a bridge, then, you know, we got to be a bridge that's got two ends across the river. You can't stop in the middle.
MARTINI want to stop you there, Bill, just to say, I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition" and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I want to bring in John, because you sounded like you wanted to get in on this, John Miller, with The Wall Street Journal.
MILLERIt's really tough, you know. There's places in Appalachia where the biggest source of revenue now for people is transfer payments, disability and Social Security and that is obviously not sustainable over time. And I've talked to economists who say, you know, economically, the right thing to do is for people to leave. I mean, the region does not have a lot of comparative advantage, reasons to put factories there.
MILLERI did a story last year about an equipment supplier that makes carriages for coal mines, now restoring trolley cars from San Francisco and elsewhere. And they're Brookville Equipment Corporation and they're a rare success story. Just not a lot of reasons to put factories in that part of the world and it's sad and there's no easy answers in this situation.
MARTINI want to turn to a caller, Jennifer, from Nashville, Tennessee, who wants to point out what she views as an inconsistency in something that Mary Anne said, so I'll let you tackle this one, Mary Anne. But let's bring in Jennifer. Jennifer, you're on the air.
JENNIFERGood morning. Thank you for having me. Mary Anne, you stated that of the 187 new coal plants that were put on the -- that were on the table to be built and they were sidelined secondary to grassroots protests, that's actually not true. Most of those did not go through secondary to lack of funding and the energy companies not being able to get funding to work around the EPA guidelines that had been put on them to build a cleaner coal plant. So...
MARTINSo thank you so much -- yeah, go ahead. Finish your thought.
JENNIFEROh, I just also want to say, I'm all for solar and wind. I am. My husband works in the power industry. I've seen it change over the last ten years, but they need to make solar and power -- solar and wind energy much more efficient because, right now, the amount that you get, you can't really energize a city with what you're getting right now from some of the wind farms and large solar farms that are out there.
MARTINAlso, I think transmission's probably an issue with that, too, but Mary Anne, I'll let you respond to Jennifer.
HITTSo three quick things. First, on the clean energy side, there is -- one of Warren Buffet's utilities, Mid American, just announced that they are making a new investment in wind that is going to bring the utility to 85 percent wind power in the very near future. So renewable energy is no longer on the margins. Things are changing very fast. Secondly, there were 200 new coal plants on the drawing board in this country in the mid 2000s. 184 of them were stopped. I was in the trenches with many of those communities, many of those folks -- I will hold until my dying day that grassroots advocacy was a decisive factor in stopping those plants.
HITTAnd lastly, the reason that those plants were stopped, the reason that a third of the coal plants in this country are now announced for retirement is because the pollution from those plants, even modern plants, it's regular folks paying the price for that. So up until a couple of years ago, coal plants could put 100 percent of their mercury into the air. That was getting into our water. That meant 300,000 American women every year were having babies that have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb and that leads to birth defects and IQ probl4ems.
HITTThere are people living next to coal plants now with kids with sky high rates of asthma. So when we don't have these public health safeguards in place for mercury, for water pollution, for carbon, it's not as if that pollution is not causing any harm. We are all paying the price for it, with our health, with our lungs, with our lives and that's why we need these kind of safeguards in place. So I would argue with the premise that these public health standards are somehow unnecessary or un-useful.
HITTWhen we don't have them, which we did not for a very long time, it was all of us that were paying the price with our health.
MARTINThank you so much. And thanks, Jennifer, for your call. And I'm gonna finish with a question, actually, I'm going to put this to you, John, because we've gotten emails, we've gotten callers who are interested in this topic. Donald Trump is promising to bring coal jobs back. So I guess I'll give you the final word here, John. Based on your reporting, how can he make that happen?
MILLEROh, man. Well...
MILLER...he can't control the economy, obviously. I mean, coal demand would have to come back. I mean, I guess you could make it way easier to build new mines and to build new power plants. And there is permitting underway to do that. So if he, like, streamlined that permitting, you would see more mines. And some companies are laying the groundwork if a Republican, so it looks like it would be Donald Trump, wins. They would be able to build new mines and dig more.
MILLERAnd, you know, coal's not going away, but in 2040, coal will still be 20 percent of the U.S. power grid. There is going to be mining in this country, just a lot less of it. And I want to add, too, that tourism, by the way, is seen by economists as a great economic hope for the region.
MARTINWell, thank you so much. It's been a fascinating conversation. John Miller is a reporter with The Wall Street Journal and he covers energy issues and coal in particular. We were also joined this hour by William Raney. He's the president of West Virginia Coal Association. And Mary Anne Hitt was here in our studio with us. She is the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. Thanks so much to all of you.
HITTIt was a pleasure. Thank you for having us.
RANEYYeah, thank you, Rachel.
MILLERPleasure, Rachel, thank you.
MARTINAnd I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks so much for listening.
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