Michael Meeropol: A Proposal To Retrain Coal Miners

Apr 7, 2017

There are approximately 65,000 coal miners working today in the United States.  (Adding employment in coal fired electrical plants brings the number connected to coal to about 150,000.)   In 1985, the number of coal miners was 173,700.   By 2003 it had fallen to 70,000.   Donald Trump and Republicans have made a big deal about President Obama’s so-called “war on coal” and that propaganda had been very effective.   Republicans carried West Virginia and Kentucky against President Obama, and Donald Trump won Pennsylvania as well.  He parlayed his cynically false promise to bring back coal jobs into big electoral majorities in coal country --- carrying West Virginia for example with 69% of the vote.   And yes, coal mining jobs were at 65,400 in 2015 indicating that the downward trend in coal employment had continued under President Obama, though the major declines were much more precipitous before 2008.  (These numbers are available from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis).   Coal production on the other hand rose steeply from the late 1960s to 2008 reflecting increased productivity as strip-mining began to replace deep-shaft mining and equipment made the old pick and shovel image of a coal miner completely obsolete.   Total production was 1.172 million short tons in 2008 falling to less than 900,000 in 2015.  (The numbers are available from the U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Form 7000-2, “Quarterly Mine Employment and Coal Production Report”).    Though the fall has been blamed on the “war on coal” in fact it is the result of cheap natural gas as a result of fracking.   The only way to bring back coal jobs is to impose onerous taxation on natural gas so that utilities will cease switching over.   Imagine how well that would play with natural gas companies.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the country is appalled at the thought of increasing coal production and continuing to generate electricity by burning coal because coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.   This sets up a false fight between our hopes for jobs with decent pay workers and our desire to save the planet for our grandchildren.   This false conflict is one of the cynical ploys utilized by the fossil fuel industry in order to frighten workers into opposing efforts to cut and ultimately end carbon emissions in order to save the planet.  

In fact, there is a way to have both an increase in well-paying jobs in the energy sector and a switch to a carbon neutral future with emphasis on renewable sources of energy.  The Harvard Business Review just published a summary of a study showing that with the rapid growth in employment in solar industries all coal miners as well as workers in coal fired electrical generating plants (93% of the coal consumed in the US is used to generate electricity) no matter what the level of expertise, could be retrained for jobs in the solar-generated electrical industry. 

[See Joshua Pearce, “What if All US Coal Workers Were Retrained to Work in Solar,” Harvard Business Review (August 8, 2016) available at https://hbr.org/2016/08/what-if-all-u-s-coal-workers-were-retrained-to-work-in-solar.] 

The detailed research was published by Dr. Pearce and a collaborator Edward Louie in the journal Energy Economics (“Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment”  Vol 57, pages 295–302 (2016). doi:10.1016/j.eneco.2016.05.016 free open access pre-print.)   In the Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Pearce writes that “…. because of the tremendous drop in costs for solar technology, solar adoption is now rising rapidly.   ….  the American solar industry had a record first quarter in 2016, and for the first time, it drove the majority of new power generation. The U.S. solar industry is creating a lot of jobs, bringing on new workers 12 times faster than the overall economy. As of November 2015, the solar industry employed 208,859 solar workers,…”

They matched current jobs in both coal mining and energy production using coal with comparable jobs in solar industries related to electrical generation.  Except for highly paid executives in coal companies, these new jobs would pay more than the comparable existing coal job.  “For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10% salary increase. Similarly, explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11% more on average.”

In some cases, there would need to be a period of retraining which they estimated would cost at most $1.8 billion.   To my mind, that is a miniscule price to pay for a win-win-win solution.

First win:   coal miners and employees of coal-fired electric plants find good jobs at decent pay.   Second win:   the subsidy to retrain workers will reverse decades of disadvantaging solar electrical generation due to government subsidies of coal fired electricity.  This will accelerate the shift of electrical generation to solar.  [For details of the government subsidies to coal see http://www.taxpayer.net/library/article/coal-a-long-history-of-subsidies]  Third win:   the cynical climate deniers who want to continue fossil fuel production and exploit coal miners’ (and other workers’) concerns about their futures will have lost an important political prop.

I want to go one better.   During the transition, I propose any working coal miner (or working in a coal-fired electricity plant) in search of a new career in solar will draw his or her last salary in coal paid for in full.   Some of the retraining is simple and on-the-job.   Some would require getting an advanced degree.   Assuming such coal related jobs fall by half in the next ten years, and retraining takes on average one year, I estimate the cost of continuing to pay those salaries at close to $75 billion spread over those ten years.  (I am using the number 150,000 as a guess of the population we are thinking of --- half of that is, of course, 75,000.   I am assuming a $100.000 total compensation cost per individual which is probably higher than would obtain in reality.)  Over ten years that averages to $7.5 billion per year.   Adding the $1.8 billion in re-training expenses makes the annual cost $7.68 billion.  The federal budget by contrast is over $4 trillion --- the $7.68 b. per year would be a bit less than TWO TENTHS OF ONE PERCENT of the total federal budget.   By contrast, one aircraft carrier costs $10 billion to build and $2-4 billion per year in operating expenses.

But who’s going to pay?   Let me respond first with a rhetorical question.   How much is it worth to you that your grandchildren will have a chance to live in a world relatively similar to ours rather than be faced with massive coastal flooding, crops failures and famines, a relocation of hundreds of millions of people, probable wars for declining resource.   In previous commentaries, I have recommended the outstanding (if scary) dystopian novel THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION:  A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.   Their book is a detailed extrapolation of trends already apparent today.   It is not a guarantee of the future but a very severe warning.   So I repeat my rhetorical question:   How much is it worth it to you to remove the dangers that your grandchildren will live in a dangerous dystopia – if they even survive?   Because I believe that science has already told us what is happening to the world because of global warming and because I believe we are dangerously close to the point of no return, I consider the benefits of leaving fossil fuels in the ground and moving to a carbon neutral energy system to be INFINITE.

So the answer of who should pay is --- all of us taxpayers.   We will all benefit if global warming is finally stopped and one great way to do it is to LEAVE THE COAL IN THE GROUND.   (We need to do the same with oil and natural gas as well but first things first.)

I assume there will be very few coal miners who would insist that they have to continue mining coal.  My guess is that virtually every coal miner does it for the money and not for the glory and excitement of coal mining.   Coal mining is a dirty, dangerous job for which coal miners are paid well --- as they should be.   Let’s pay them to retrain for cleaner energy jobs and pay them their wages during the retraining period.   

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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