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Even in Bankruptcy, Coal Companies Can’t Stop Selling Out Workers

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

After key environmental protections were rolled back by the executive order of President Donald Trump in March 2017—including the Obama-era Clean Power Plan—coal magnate Robert E. Murray cheered the news. “I think it’s wonderful, not just for the United States coal industry, our miners and their families, but it’s wonderful for America,” said Murray, then-CEO of Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States. Murray had aggressively lobbied for the rollbacks, and In These Times published photos of his secret meeting, earlier that month, to deliver a four-page rollback wish list to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. It was sealed with a hug between the two.

Murray has portrayed himself as a champion of coal miners against environmentalists. “I live among these people,” he told the Guardian just before Trump signed the order. “These are the people who fought the wars and built our country and they were forgotten by Democrats who had gone to Hollywood characters, liberal elitists and radical environmentalists.”

But Murray Energy’s 2019 bankruptcy filings tell a different story. Authored by Murray’s nephew and new CEO, Robert Moore, they point to other coal companies that “used bankruptcy to reduce debt and lower their cost structures by eliminating cash interest obligations and pension and benefit obligations.” Reneging on workers’ hard-earned pensions and benefits has left competitors “better positioned to compete for volume and pricing in the current market.”

The language suggests Murray Energy intends to follow the example of companies like Westmoreland Mining and Blackjewel, using bankruptcy to evade coal miners’ healthcare and pension costs. In a particularly dastardly case, in 2007, Peabody Coal created Patriot Coal, a doomed-to-fail spinoff company, and dumped 10,000 retirees there; they lost their pensions after Patriot promptly filed for bankruptcy. But these bankrupt companies still manage to make good on their debts to banks and hedge funds.

Gary Campbell, 37, a member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and worker at the Murray Energy-owned Marion County Coal Company in West Virginia, is scared for fellow workers who have retired. “The retirees are too old to go back to work,” Campbell says. “So what happens when they can’t afford their house payment or car payment or medical bill? They’re being thrown to the curb. It’s horrible to see people treated like this.”

There’s no question that coal workers face an uncertain future, but a phaseout of coal is a necessity: Coal is the highestcarbon-emission fuel source. A 2015 study found that to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the vast majority of fossil fuels—including 92% of U.S. coal reserves—must stay in the ground. That precarity will be felt most by the poor and working class who, unlike Robert E. Murray, won’t be able to retire to a secluded mansion when heat and natural disasters threaten their homes.

The way to champion coal workers is not to save the industry from environmental regulation, as Murray would like us to think, but to ensure a just transition from a fossil fuel economy—something coal companies have no interest in, but environmentalists and labor unions do. The Green New Deal resolution put forward in February 2019 by Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) calls for the United States “to achieve netzero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” Such a shift could bring coal miners dignified, union jobs in another sector—whether it’s coal cleanup, renewable energy, public transportation, healthcare or another field.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired UMWA coal miner and climate justice activist, advocates a just transition away from fossil fuels as part of a Green New Deal. “As far as a just transition, the only way to look at it is you have to find something equal or better paying than [the jobs] they’ve got right now,” Sturgill says. And it will be workers, not companies, who become the critical leaders in this process.

The just transition can start immediately: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, has repeatedly called on climate activists to support the 2019 American Miners Act (AMA), supported by UMWA. It would protect the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash and rescue the healthcare of miners whose companies went bankrupt.

The AMA is only a first step. In a just world, a full transition would include not only the dignified union jobs called for by the Green New Deal resolution, but shut down the coal companies and redistribute their assets to workers before they can go bankrupt and abandon their obligations—or further harm the climate.

At the very least, the Robert Murrays of the world should be recognized for what they are: enemies of the working people who, as Campbell puts it, “made them their fortune.” Coal companies treat their workers just as they treat the earth: something to extract value from, then discard.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

The Just Transition for Coal Workers Can Start Now. Colorado Is Showing How.

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Rachel Cohen

This past May, Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis signed a series of new environmental bills into law, with the enthusiastic backing of the state’s labor movement. Legislation ranged from expanding community solar gardens to establishing a “Just Transition” office for coal-dependent communities.

Organized labor in Colorado hasn’t always been an ally in the fight against climate change, but beginning in 2018, a Democratic messaging bill that called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 forced local unions to start having some tough conversations.

“Republicans controlled the Senate, so the bill had no chance of passing, but it forced the conversation on our end as to what do we need to do to get behind these bills in the future, instead of just blocking them or delaying,” explained Dennis Dougherty, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, which represents approximately 165 unions representing more than 130,000 workers. “It was really the first time we asked ourselves, well what’s our game plan?”

In February 2018, Colorado activists launched a state-based affiliate of the Peoples Climate Movement, a coalition of community, faith, youth and environmental groups focused on promoting an equitable response to climate change. Dougherty, who worked for years as a federal mediator before joining the labor movement, soon became co-chair of the Colorado coalition. “This was the first time labor has really stepped out in leadership on climate,” he told In These Times.

What followed were a series of organized talks between unions and environmental groups. With resources from its parent organization, the Peoples Climate Movement Colorado even hired a skilled facilitator from the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to help guide its conversations. The work culminated in a Climate, Jobs and Justice Summit last September.

Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate after the 2018 midterms, giving them trifecta control over Colorado politics, and the ability to pass many climate-related bills this year. Those bills included two pieces of legislation advocates hope can serve as a model for climate, jobs and justice organizing in other states.

One is HB-1314, which establishes a Just Transition Office in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The first-of-its-kind office, which will have both a dedicated staff and an advisory committee of diverse stakeholders, is charged with creating a equitable plan for coal-dependent communities and workers as the state transitions away from fossil fuels. The goal is to mitigate the economic hardship that will accompany this energy transition. A draft plan is due by July 2020, and by 2025, the state will start administering benefits to displaced coal workers, and provide workforce retraining grants to coal-transitioning communities like Pueblo, Larimer, Delta, Morgan and others.

As part of the legislation, labor unions successfully pushed for language around “wage differential benefits” for those workers who end up in jobs that may pay less than the jobs they currently have in the fossil fuel industry. The Just Transition office would provide “supplemental income” to cover “all or part of the difference” between a coal worker’s old job and their new one.

Dougherty said they pushed for an office precisely because they thought it would be stronger than an advisory board or a task force. “I’m not worried it will be something without teeth,” he said. “There’s also so much groundswell to keep up pressure.”

The second bill, SB-236, includes language to authorize the so-called securitization of coal plants, as a way to hasten their retirement and to bring additional funds to coal-dependent communities. The idea is to allow a utility company to swap its remaining coal plant debt for a ratepayer-backed bond. Twenty other states have bond securitization laws, and they have been used by governments to close a nuclear plant in Florida and a coal plant in Michigan. The twist in Colorado is to use some of the millions of dollars in savings from securitization to reinvest back in workers and vulnerable communities.

The bill sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Chris Hansen, first introduced the idea in 2017. While his bill passed the House, it died in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.

Labor and environmental groups supported the securitization bill this year, though Dougherty emphasized that the savings it could generate would not be enough on their own to fund the kind of just transition they’re looking to see. “We see it as just one funding mechanism for communities and workers,” he said. (A separate bill also passed this year by Colorado lawmakers enables the state’s public utilities commission to distribute some of the securitization savings to vulnerable communities.)

According to the Colorado Mining Association, Colorado is the 11th largest coal-producing state, with six active coal mines, employing a little over 1,200 mine workers. The National Mining Association estimates that nearly 18,000 people across Colorado are employed directly by the state’s mining industry.

For both the Just Transition office and the coal plant securitization bill, leaders say key to passage was a lot of education, research and tough, honest dialogue.

Rep. Hansen, who has a PhD in resource economics and worked in the energy sector before running for office in 2016, said getting his bill passed was a multi-year process of stakeholder engagement. “I also really had to educate my own colleagues about securitization,” he told In These Times.“Some folks in Colorado thought this was a giveaway to the utilities industry, but it’s really the opposite of a bailout because for the securitization to work the companies have to walk away from significant amounts of revenue.”

Rep. Hansen said he’s been trying to be honest with people that major economic transitions are coming, and the best thing leaders can do is proactively plan ahead. “There will be dislocation and disruption but the alternative is to let what we’ve typically had happen in this country which is just kind of a free-fall for transitioning communities with no real help from government,” he said. “I much rather try and prepare then be reactive after-the-fact.”

Within the Just Transition office, Dougherty said labor unions plan to push for the wage differential benefit to cover a transition of up to three years. For example, if someone was earning $100,000 in a coal-industry job, and retrains for another position that pays $60,000, labor wants to see the state cover that difference for several years.

Dougherty said at first unions thought a “just transition” could mean demanding jobs at the same level of pay and benefits that workers are currently earning in perpetuity, but after doing research into the issue and assessing the political realities, they modified their demands.

“We hired someone to research every ‘just transition’ that’s been done across the world,” he explained, adding: “We said, okay, well what can we realistically do at the state level that we think is fair while also not coming out and demanding something that’s never going to happen?”

“I think what happened in Colorado is really, really important,” said Paul Getsos, the national director of the Peoples Climate Movement. “It’s a real example of union leaders who are really willing to educate other union leaders about the issues to see how they can move their institutions forward.”

Getsos added that Colorado’s experience reflects how successful legislative victories are not won overnight. “It takes a lot of relationship building,” he said. “A lot of trust.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on July 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031

Kentucky lawmakers put decisions on black lung treatments in hands of industry-paid doctors

Monday, April 9th, 2018

The political assault on science in the age of Trump has reached a point where even medical specialties are rising up in protest. Radiologists are fighting back against a new Kentucky law that excludes them from the black lung claims process for coal miners in the state.

Under the new legislation, if a miner files a black lung claim with the state, only a federally licensed pulmonologist can review the X-rays and ultimately make a diagnosis. Previously, radiologists could offer a diagnosis as well.

The legislation, part of a larger workers’ compensation bill signed into law by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) on March 30, is expected to make it more difficult for coal miners stricken with black lung disease to receive benefits for treating their disease and living with black lung. The workers’ compensation bill was supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Coal Association. Labor groups strongly opposed it.

The American College of Radiology, a national organization representing more than 38,000 radiologists, said it is troubled that Kentucky lawmakers stepped in to determine who is qualified to read the X-rays of coal miners seeking compensation for black lung disease. A process is already in place to determine whether a physician is qualified to review black lung cases, the group said.

“To have that established process superseded by legislators and a political process is inappropriate,” American College of Radiology Chief Executive Officer William Thorwarth Jr. M.D., said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Monday.

Thorwarth emphasized that politics should be left out of the black lung claims process. “We hope that the Kentucky legislature will rescind this new law and work with medical providers to save more lives,” he said.

Phillip Wheeler, an attorney in Pikeville, Kentucky who represents coal miners seeking state black lung benefits, said it’s possible the new law could be overturned on appeal. The law applies the rule only to workers who file claims for black lung and not workers in other industries who file benefit claims, Wheeler said Monday in an interview with ThinkProgress.

An appeals court could find that the law violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law by limiting the type of doctors who can be used in black lung cases, while workers in other occupations aren’t subjected to the same limits when they apply for worker’s compensation benefits.

The new law also could prove problematic because it drastically reduces the number of physicians in Kentucky permitted to read the chest X-rays when coal miners file a black lung claim, Wheeler said. Six doctors in Kentucky will now be eligible to conduct the exams, according to an NPR review of federal black lung cases. At least half of them “have collected hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars form the coal industry over the last 25 to 30 years,” Wheeler said.

“The three primary doctors that will be doing most of these exams have shown a distinct bias against coal miners through the years,” he said.

Physicians who read chest X-rays for work-related diseases like black lung — also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis — are known as “B readers” and are certified by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for both federal and state compensation claims. B readers do not specifically have to be pulmonologists or radiologists, though they can be both.

Black lung is common term for several respiratory diseases that share a single cause: breathing in coal mine dust. Over time, black lung disease causes a person’s lungs to become coated in the black particulates that miners inhaled during their time in the mines. Their passageways are marked by dark scars and hard nodules.

The Kentucky Coal Association “basically drafted the legislation,” Wheeler said, explaining why the new law will likely make it more difficult for miners to win black lung claims cases.

The new Kentucky law coincides with the Trump administration’s decision to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

President Donald Trump pledged to end the so-called war on coal but has thus far done nothing to help coal miners who have spent years working in mines win black lung benefits.

Likewise, Kentucky lawmakers are showing a preference for industry profits over occupational health. Evan Smith, an attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, said in a tweet that the new law will keep the state’s coal miners from using “highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims.”

The law “looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections,” Smith said.

Black lung has made a comeback in recent years. The disease now sickens about one in 14 underground miners with more than 25 years’ experience who submit to voluntary checkups, according to a recent study, a rate nearly double that from the disease’s lowest point from 1995 to 1999.

Kentucky is one of the states that has witnessed the resurgence in the most advanced form of black lung disease, which is debilitating and deadly.

Lawmakers included the provision in the new worker compensation law even though radiologists are considered to be the most qualified among doctors certified to diagnose black lung disease.

State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican who represents a district in northern Kentucky, sponsored the legislation. He told NPR that, when writing the law, he relied on the expertise of those who understand the issue — “the industry, coal companies and attorneys.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 9, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

Trump’s rollback of environmental rules will fail to bring back coal, report says

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

“Can Coal Make a Comeback?” asks a new report by Columbia University researchers.

Spoiler alert: In its first few pages, the report states that President Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to bring jobs back to coal country or dramatically boost coal production.

Rolling back environmental regulations, as the Trump administration frantically sought to do during its first 100 days, will not “materially improve” economic conditions in the nation’s coal communities, according to the report.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly vowed to end a “war on coal” allegedly waged by the Obama administration. But as long as natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline despite the Trump administration’s plans to roll back Obama-era regulations, the report says.

“Responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the coal sector?—?including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence?—?rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,” the report says.

The report was released by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It was authored by Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy; Trevor Houser, a partner at consulting firm Rhodium Group; and Peter Marsters, a research analyst with Rhodium Group.

The report seeks to offer an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal industry to collapse. It then examines the prospects for a recovery of coal production and employment by modeling the impact of Trump’s executive order directing agencies to review or rescind several Obama-era environmental regulations and assessing the global coal market outlook.

Even coal industry executives and coal country politicians have dialed down their rhetoric in recent months, according to the report. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump supporter, urged him to set more modest goals during the campaign and has warned post-election that there is little chance U.S. production can return to pre-recession levels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) also cautioned?—?after the election?—?that ending the “war on coal” might not bring jobs back to his home state of Kentucky.

The Columbia University report isn’t the first to rain on Trump’s coal parade. In a report released earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance emphasized U.S. coal’s main problem “has been cheap natural gas and renewable power, not a politically driven ‘war on coal.’”

But words of caution haven’t stopped Trump from waging a crusade for coal. Two weeks into his presidency, Trump signed a congressional joint resolution eliminating the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule finalized in 2016 by the Obama Administration that would have limited the amount of mining waste coal companies can dispose into streams and waterways. In late March, Trump signed the executive order that called on the EPA to “review” the Clean Power Plan, the agency’s carbon-reduction plan for new power plants.

“Many of these actions will take months for agencies to implement and will be challenged in the courts. But they are clearly designed to communicate Trump’s commitment to deliver on his campaign promises,” the Columbia University report said. “Indeed, he signed his March 28 [order] at the EPA in front of a group of coal miners, and after signing, turned to them and said, ‘C’mon fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You are going back to work.’”

In the report’s best-case scenario for coal that the authors modeled, U.S. production would see only a modest recovery to 2013 levels at just under 1 billion tons a year. In its worst-case scenario, consumption falls from 730 million short tons in 2016 to 688 million short tons in 2020 despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama administration climate regulations.

Rather than bet on a recovery in coal production, coal communities, governments, and other private and public sector organizations should work together to “leverage the other assets” that exist in coal country to attract investment in new sources of job creation and economic growth, the study said.

“This certainly isn’t easy,” the authors wrote. “Coal communities in particular are often geographically remote and lack the infrastructure necessary to attract large-scale investment. Miners and others in the local labor market often lack the skills necessary for jobs that offer the kind of compensation available in coal mining.”

The federal government could offer plenty of help to accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts, according to the report. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and re-purposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation, it says.

“But this all requires a clear-eyed assessment of the outlook for the coal industry and a commitment to put sustainable solutions ahead of politically expedient talking points,” the report says.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

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