Dean Baker wrote another one of those blog posts, If Kentucky Is a Coal Mining State Is it Also a Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction State? What he’s getting out is that The New York Times (although they are hardly alone), refers to Kentucky as a “coal state.” But the entire coal industry in the state is responsible for only 0.6% of all the jobs. There are actually more jobs in heavy and civil engineering. So why not, “Kentucky, a heavy and civil engineering construction state, would benefit greatly from a federal jobs program focused on infrastructure building”?
The truth of the matter is that newspapers to this day refer to Kentucky and West Virginia as “coal states” because the coal industry has been so successful at lobbying. They like the image of the hard working coal miner like you see in, Harlan County, USA. It’s great PR, because how can you not admire those hard working people doing the most dangerous of jobs. But most of those jobs have gone. And they haven’t gone away because of government regulation. Some of the lost jobs have just gone because of market forces—coal is losing market share to other energy sources like natural gas.
But the big change comes from the changes in how mining is done. The industry itself doesn’t want to pay a small army of people to dig down into a mountain. So now there is far more surface mining that doesn’t require nearly as many workers. In an article four years ago by Bill Bishop and Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder, they noted, “What’s interesting is how the national press constantly overstates the importance of coal to the economies of eastern coal states.” And they provide this amazing graph of coal employment in southern Appalachia:
So I get angry when when anyone complains about moving away from coal, which produces a whole lot more carbon-dioxide per unit of energy than do most other fossil fuels. They scream about the job losses. But who has been screaming about the job losses the management of the industry has been involved in over the last three decades? No one. Because all the wringing of hands has nothing to do with workers’ jobs; it is all about company profits.
I haven’t had time to get into all of the new EPA regulations for power plants, but at first glance, it looks very good indeed. In fact, it is a win for everyone, except for the owners. Forcing power plants to upgrade and retrofit will create jobs. We should have been doing this for a long time, but again, it will hurt profits of the already rich and so generally our government won’t do anything.
But it is true that people who work in and around the coal industry have been harmed and will continue to be harmed. But it would cost us almost nothing to help them. So if conservatives claim to be worried about these people (and we know that mostly they don’t), they should be for providing welfare and job training and even government jobs for these people. That’s what you do if you care about the coal miners. And you should care. We should all care. But the coal industry owners? They are doing just fine and can take care of themselves.