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Mine workers union endorses Biden energy policies in exchange for job training

Some miners are resistant to changes that could bring an end to their current jobs.
Image: A front loader moves coal at a surface mine in Oakland City, Ind.
A front loader moves coal at a surface mine in Oakland City, Ind., on April 5, 2016.Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The United Mine Workers of America leadership announced Monday they support President Joe Biden’s green energy policies in exchange for a robust transition strategy, a move the union hopes its membership will support as a way to transition toward new jobs.

Fearing further regulations from the Biden administration, the UMWA is pleading with Congress to invest in the industry by allocating funds to training and “good paying jobs” with benefits in renewable energy sectors for miners dislocated by the changes. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is joining the union for its announcement Monday morning.

“We’re trying to, first of all, insert ourselves to the extent that we can in this conversation because our people, a lot of coal miners in this country, their families have suffered already some traumatic losses,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts told NBC.

For many miners, it’s going to be a hard sell.

“It’s not fair to take somebody’s job away from them and push them into another career,” Ryan Cottrell, a miner and union member in Harrison County, West Virginia, said in a phone interview. “I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world. And I hope coal is continued to be mined for years after I’m gone.”

Progressives in Congress are putting pressure on Biden, the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president,” and he faces a tough decision between preserving jobs in industries like coal and shifting to cleaner power sources. The coal industry has faced a steep decline for decades, with nearly half of mining jobs since 2012 gone as the tug of war between environmental activists and fossil fuel companies continues to play out.

The union is also asking Congress and the Biden administration to invest in technologies that would make coal cleaner in order to help preserve the industry, such as carbon capture — something that remains controversial with environmental groups who say it leads to leakages and contamination and would rather invest funds in renewable energy sources.

“Don’t fix something that isn’t broke, make it better. Instead of ‘let’s fix the problem with the coal,’ it’s like, they don’t want to do that. They want to kill it. They just want to wipe us out – well when they’re doing that, they’re causing states to go under and West Virginia is one of them,” said Cottrell, who has been working the midnight shift in coal mines for the last decade so he can spend time with his wife and two children.

Cottrell says the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations, like those enacted under the Obama administration, affect miners more than people realize. “I’m scared I’m going to lose my job every day — somebody taking my job from me, for the company not being able to produce coal safely and efficiently due to the regulations.”

In his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, Biden proposed a sweeping investment in green energy such as wind, solar and other renewable energy projects. In an effort to help fossil fuel workers transition to new jobs, the plan also includes billions of dollars to employ dislocated utility workers in the coal, oil and gas industries.

Today, coal is still significant to the economy in coal-producing states like West Virginia, and pays on average $75,000 – well above the median income. “I have no doubt that President Biden wants to create good paying union jobs, but currently, the jobs that are being discussed here are not good paying union jobs. They’re a fraction of what a coal miner makes,” Roberts added.

Some environmental advocates and progressives in Congress who seek to shut down the coal industry altogether criticized Biden for his plan, saying it doesn’t do enough to tackle climate change. But miners feel as though they’ve been wrongly targeted as the biggest contributors to climate change.

“It’s tough, I mean I get the clean energy. Nobody wants to see our planet get ruined. We don’t want it to be our fault, but it’s definitely not all on us. It just seems like we’ve always been under attack, more so than anybody else,” Gary Campbell, a 16-year miner from Marion County, West Virginia, whose father is also in the industry, said in a phone interview.

Campbell, unlike Cottrell, says he’s open to job training in a renewable energy sector if he’s left with no choice. “It’s not like I’m turning my back on coal, but yeah, if I know my job isn’t going to be here, then I’d have to look elsewhere – whether it’s in solar or whatever it is, if it keeps me home.”

Late last year, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia granted a $90 million certificate to a solar company aimed at attracting utility-scale solar development as coal mines continue to close in the area. Cottrell cites February’s historic cold snap that left millions of Texans without heat and water as a reason why renewable energy isn’t as reliable as coal, though advocates say record low temperatures induced by climate change are to blame.

“People forget what coal miners actually have done throughout history for the country … throughout the wars, providing ... and different things, and there’s just still a sense of pride about it,” Campbell said. “We kind of got the country going in the right direction a long time ago and you still kind of feel that, but it seems like everybody else kind of forgot about it.”

CORRECTION (April 17, 2021, 11:33 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the union that endorsed Biden’s green energy plan. It is the United Mine Workers of America, not the United Mine Workers Association.