Poverty comes with a Friends of Coal sticker….
Election time is approaching and the war drums are sounding again here in Southwestern Virginia. The “war on coal” cries have started up again for what’s mostly uncontested races in this part. It’s all an early start for next years Presidential election, one that will most assuredly end up with this area voting against their own best interests. More recently Alpha Natural Resources has given fodder to the conservative peddlers that President Obama is killing the coal industry and turned a prosperous area into a ghost town. Only in their parallel universe is this true. The math only seems to work if you just pretend the world began in 2009 when President Obama took office. Every time we hear about a layoff by a mining company it’s always “Obama’s war on coal and EPA regulations are killing our way of life!” According to them he’s been dishing out regulations hand-over-fist on coal plants and killing the price of coal. Never mind the fact that the EPA, nor Obama, has not implemented any regulations on carbon emissions the entire time he has been in office. That doesn’t stop these people from playing on fear and uncertainly ingrained in this area to win votes.
Back in 2008 we heard about the “cap and trade” bill and how it was going to destroy the area and coal industry so we must vote for John McCain to avoid it all. What was never mentioned by these liars is that John McCain had been a champion for “cap and trade” legislation for years prior. He had not only voted for, but co-sponsored legislation in 2003, 2005, and 2007 with his Climate Stewardship Acts that would have capped and taxed carbon emissions. We heard it again in 2010 from local conservative interests in the race for the 9th congressional race. Congressman Morgan Griffith and outside groups that flooded millions into TV ads warning us of another bill that President Obama and Congressman Boucher were apparently working on some bill to kill the coal industry. Of course, in their usual manner, they left out the part where Congressman Boucher had voted Yes on a energy bill that contained a cap and trade portion because of amendments he added that would offer coal plants free offsets to virtually not have to abide by any regulations at all. The other convenient fact is that that bill had died in the House in mid-July in 2010 and was completely abandoned with the focus on other issues and legislation as democrats anticipated losing control of the House. But no, Superman Griffith was going to swoop in and save us all from this non-existent threat. In 2012, like every year before, we heard the same lies again. This time, however, it Mitt Romney who was our savior. The same Mitt Romney that stood in front of a coal-fired plant in Mass., stated they killed, and vowed to shut them down. He too was a supporter of cap and trade legislation and called it quote “good for business”.
All of these were facts you weren’t likely to hear in 30 second ads that ran every commercial break. What you did hear was this line repeated over and over: “So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” That was President Obama’s comment, out of context, about coal-fired plants ignoring potential regulations that, once again, still haven’t been enacted. If that 12 second clip had just been rewinded a bit, it would have included the full quote before: “This notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion, because the fact of the matter is that right now, we are getting a lot of our energy from coal, and China is building a coal-fired plant once a week. So what we have to do then is we have to figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it? If we can’t, then we’re going to still be working on alternatives.” More pesky facts that didn’t quite make it to voters. It doesn’t matter. It worked.
We’ll hear it all over again next year. This time the names will be replaced as they have been in every election in this area for the last seven years. Why not? It’s a winning formula. People soak up an ad, one-liner, and fear-inducing propaganda. It’s a much easier message to push than what I just explained. It still doesn’t make it any truer, however. The truth is that coal companies have been doing what they always have: taking advantage of us, making millions while we wallow in poverty, and proceed to not let the door hit them on their ass on the way out. Alpha is a perfect example. They would have us believe that they just have to absolutely positively layoff 70 employees here, 40 there, all just to stay afloat. They weren’t too concerned about this when they were paying CEO Kevin Crutchfield a $2,000,000 bonus just a few months ago. Or the $6,000,000 in 2011 and 2012. Is that bad enough? No. How about the fact that they’re still paying their former President, Paul Vining, $4,500,000 annually? The miners weren’t a concern then while they were running the company of a dying industry into the ground before declaring bankruptcy. CONSOL just recently announced they would be going back on their promise to fund miners healthcare with some tough choices because the industry was taking a big hit. They were doing so bad in recent years that they were forced to pay their CEO, Nick DeIuliis, $8,300,000 last year. That was a 45% pay increase from 2013 according to their SEC report, yet they just couldn’t find the funds to pay for local miners health insurance. They also had to contribute to Republican Delegate Will Morefield’s campaign over $46,000. Poor CONSOL only managed to be only his second top campaign contributor. He just happens to be the delegate for the two counties where they have mines in Southwest Virginia. They have also donated large sums indirectly to Virginia republican State Senator Ben Chafin’s campaign as well. Poor CONSOL only managed to be only his second top campaign contributor. They of course also spent quite a bit on Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign in 2013 but after his office was caught helping rip off landowners with the natural gas royalties, they kind of owed him. Lastly, I just couldn’t ignore Arch Coal. Last year they announced layoffs of over 200 miners in Wise County and Letcher County, KY to soften the blow of met-coal prices plummeting. If you don’t know, metallurgical coal is used for steel and iron production, not electricity and coal fired plants these non-existent regulations would cripple. While this company was struggling to survive cutting over 200 jobs in Wise and Letcher in the process, who have poverty rates of 19.3% and 27.1% accompanied by unemployment rates of 9.2% and 10.7% respectively, they had to pay their President and CEO, John Eaves, $7,300,000.
Do we get it yet? Is your stomach churning? I’ve felt a bit sick writing this. We have a entire delegation of politicians in this area that stand with these robbers, hold their hand, and promise to take on big, bad Obama and save us all. Why is it that our memory only goes back seven years? Are we just going to pretend that the mining industry wasn’t collapsing for decades before Obama took office? Lets see just how thriving it was…
A total loss of 90,989 coal-miners from 1984 until 2008. Half of the coal-mining workforce.
To further point out the hypocrisy and short memory of our conservative friends, lets do a quick comparison. What was the average mining employment under Bush? 76,470 jobs. Obama’s average through 2012? 88,152 jobs.
It’s also higher under Obama’s tenure compared to Bush’s in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia individually. Here’s a look at Virginia’s…
So even though coal employment is up during Obama’s tenure, as high as it was in the mid-to-late 90’s, we’re just supposed to pretend that the industry didn’t lose over half, 90,000+ jobs, of its workforce in the 20+ years prior to Obama? Oh yes, those regulations that haven’t been enacted, only proposed, now re-proposed after the first proposals were shot down by SCOTUS this summer anyway, have taken its toll on the these poor coal companies. When that fact is pointed out, conservatives then fall to the argument of speculation and just the proposal of regulations that have caused the layoffs all on their own. If this was the case, why did Alpha spend and borrow $7.1 billion in 2011, after several years into Obama’s first term to buy Massey mines? Would a company do that because they thought/knew that coal prices would fall or rise in the coming years? It doesn’t take someone with a business degree to know the answer to that.
Those are all facts that just can’t be spun, though they will be denied by the politicians who pathetically play on the fears of an area that is drowning in poverty, unemployment, poor health, and a list of other issues, to win votes. They’re fighting for us, they tell us, and they have the Friends of Coal sticker on their cars and campaign flyers to prove it. While they’re at it they’ll also keep voting to deny healthcare to this area via Medicaid expansion like every republican representative in Southwest Virginia They’ll vote against any state or federal minimum wage increase like every republican representative in the state. They’ll vote over 60 times to take healthcare away from me in attempts to repeal the ACA which has also made it easier for miners and families of miners to get the black lung benefits. I guess they’re too busy on the battlefield fighting the invisible army of terror that hates Appalachia so much they want to provide tens of millions of dollars to the area to help get these miners that these disgustingly selfish companies have laid off to continue paying their executives millions of dollars plus millions more in bonuses!
We all need a boogeyman, though. When an area feels so helpless about what’s going on around them and has been going on around them for decades, they’ll do anything to feel like they have a say. They can’t vote to oust coal prices in Asia, so the guy they already think is Muslim-atheist born in Kenya, and wants to make the white folks slaves, is an easy choice in an attempt to fill that emptiness and hopeless feeling in their gut. Even so, the rest of us suffer from this blind hate and ignorance. It’s time for us to grow a backbone again. Why are we still letting King Coal hold this area back? In the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, there has never been more than 5,500 coal miners employed in the last 15 years. Those were of course located in Southwestern Virginia but even here that is a tiny, tiny portion of employment and has been that way for decades. Coal is done here. It’s done in the states where there’s higher employment as well such as Kentucky and West Virginia in Appalachia. It’s never coming back. No, not because of some mythical regulations or a personal vendetta to attack us Appalachians by President Obama. It’s done because coal companies have come into the area, extracted the finite resources we have, polluted, poisoned, and destroyed tourism and future development…and made a run for it like a bank robber with sacks full of cash. We’re left holding the coal bucket that’s full of nothing but depression, poverty, and the absence of what little we had to begin with. Until we start electing representatives on the local, state, and federal level in these areas of Central Appalachia…we’ll keep getting screwed in the dark because coal sure as hell ain’t keeping the lights on.
Update since first published:
When I wrote this piece it was around the time Alpha Natural Resources had filed for bankruptcy, not because they were going under, but to shift or drop debts, employees, and even a spare coal-bucket if it would save them a few pennies. They did that laying-off 90 miners in Dickenson County ,a county with a 9% unemployment rate, more than twice the state average, and poverty rate of over 21%. My uncle was included in those layoffs with my stepfather just making the cut. During mid-December of 2015 Alpha seemed to find quite a bit of money lying around, however, when it asked the bankruptcy court to approve $14.8 million in bonuses for 17 senior executives. A week later, on Dec. 18 and a week before Christmas, they seemed short on cash again after announcing another layoff in West Virginia of 100 miners in Raleigh County, who has an 18.5% poverty rate coupled with an 7.5% unemployment rate, and in Boone County who boasts an 20.4% poverty rate and 9.8% unemployment rate, respectively. This was also all while it was pushing to stop medical and life insurance benefits for 4,500 non-union retirees and their families. In the end, the same bankruptcy court approved those bonuses of nearly $12 million for those executives in January and in May, granted another, separate ruling that allows Alpha to drop it’s union-contracts to retirees benefits and healthcare. Let them eat coal!