Coal Company, West Virginia Attorney General Blame Lifesaving EPA Rules For Layoffs

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the leaders in the practice of mountain removal mining, has made it clear that they aren’t happy with the new EPA rules that will require a 30% reduction in power plant emissions by the year 2030. 

In a notice to about 1,100 employees last week, Alpha informed the workers that they could be laid off due to a mix of “weak market conditions and government regulations…” 

According to The Hill, Alpha released a statement to the press with the following anti-EPA claims:

EPA regulations are at least partly responsible for more than 360 coal-fired electric generating units in the U.S. closing or switching to natural gas. Nearly one of every five existing coal-fired power plants is closing or converting to other fuel sources, and Central Appalachian coal has been the biggest loser from EPA's actions.”

Alpha is being helped along in their attack by the attorney general of West Virginia, Patrick Morrisey, who announced on Friday a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over their power plant standards.  In announcing the lawsuit, Morrisey specifically mentioned Alpha’s plightOur Office will use every legal tool available to protect coal miners and their families from the Obama Administration and its overreach. We can't afford to see more announcements like we saw with Alpha Natural Resources yesterday.

Not a bad return on investment for Alpha, considering the fact that they only invested $2,000 in Morrisey when he was running for attorney general in 2012. 

The language used by Alpha and the attorney general is incredibly important.

It is easier for dirty energy companies and the attorney general of West Virginia to blame the EPA for their troubles because it can be summed up more easily than the economic arguments. 

The public has an easier time understanding the talking point that the EPA’s rules are forcing closures than they do learning the ins and outs of economic theory, which is why the new life-saving measures have been made the whipping boy of the industry. 

But the economics have to be understood.  The cold, hard truth is that the coal industry is dying. 

While Alpha is trying to sell the public that losing 1,100 jobs is a huge deal (and I believe that the workers losing their jobs DO feel like it is a big deal, and it is), the reality is that the coal industry in West Virginia has lost more than 38,000 jobs in the last 30 years, so Alpha’s layoffs are little more than the continuation of a trend.  Coal production in West Virginia peaked in 1997, and has declined every year since then.

There is a two-part answer as to why this is happening.  The first is automation.  As technology has advanced, the coal industry is relying less and less on human performance and more on automation.  This has eliminated the jobs more than any other factor.

The second reason that the industry is hemorrhaging jobs is due to what Alpha referred to as “weak market conditions.”  Those weak market conditions include the rising cost of producing coal, as mines must be dug deeper and deeper into the earth.  Additionally, the prevalence of mountaintop removal mining has reduced the amount of coal left for extraction. 

At the same time, natural gas prices have fallen, providing an enticing alternative to areas still bent on using fossil fuels.  As I mentioned earlier, these two talking points don’t fit as well into a 10-second sound bite as something like “job-killing EPA regulations” does. 

The saddest truth is that the state of West Virginia is in desperate need of public health and safety measures.  The state ranks 49th out of 50 in the country for chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, a disease that can be directly linked to air pollution (the same pollution that the EPA’s new standards are trying to reduce).  The state ranks 11th in infant mortality and 7th in the highest number of low birth weight newborns.  Overall, only 4 other states in the country are “less healthy” than West Virginia. 

Another point that the industry and West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey seem to ignore is that the Obama administration has supported more than 130 renewable energy projects in West Virginia, which would help the state’s own goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels by 25% by the year 2025 (5 years before the deadline of the new EPA standards). 

Again, it all boils down to what you can tell the public in 10 seconds.  The dirty energy industry chooses to use their sound bites to demonize safety standards, while they discuss the root economic causes of their failure at their board meetings.  The public only hears what the industry wants them to hear.