Coal Plant Closings Nationwide Mean Better Air, But Fewer Jobs

Kari Lydersen

Those who have protested the ill health effects of Chicago's two coal plants got their way with an announcement last week that the plants will close.

Coal plants are closing left and right these days, thanks to federal environmental regulations that take effect in coming years and low natural gas prices that greatly reduce the profit potential of coal-fired power.

A particularly high-profile announcement amongst the drumbeat of coal plant closing notices came last week. Chicago’s two archaic coal plants, in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, will close by the end of the year and by the end of 2014, respectively. That means cleaner air and also job losses for about 170 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 15. The same day as the Chicago announcement, the company GenOn announced the closing of seven plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania that will mean hundreds of lost jobs and ripple effects on local businesses and school districts.

While the Chicago plants might have closed anyway for the same reasons that more than 100 other plant closed nationwide during the last two years, the precipitating factor here was an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was under pressure from activists, environmental groups and city council members who have been pushing the issue for years. Environmental groups also agreed to withdraw a lawsuit regarding other Midwest Generation Illinois plants.

A recent story in Crain’s Chicago Business said that dropping wholesale power prices and the pending federal environmental laws mean Midwest Generation may also close its other four Illinois plants rather than invest millions in pollution controls, meaning a total of more than 1,000 jobs lost, about 700 of them union. Crain’s added: If the plants go through bankruptcy, union contracts could be voided, putting labor agreements on pay, benefits and pensions in jeopardy.”

At the State Line plant in Indiana just across the Chicago border, more than 100 workers – mostly members of the United Steelworkers – will lose their jobs in coming months when the parent company Dominion shuts the plant down, as I reported last month.

The Midwest Generation plants do not seem to be a significant source of jobs for Chicago residents, as appeared clear during a city council hearing last year when Midwest Generation bussed in workers to fill the gallery, but upon questioning from a city councilman it was clear that very few lived in Chicago. The loss of jobs is of course a serious blow for the union and the individual workers regardless of where they live.

But environmental, public health and other groups that have long pushed for the plants to close, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas or at least install modern pollution control equipment have little sympathy for companies’ arguments that they are crucial job-providers.

The companies have known about pending environmental regulations for a number of years now, and had time to invest in pollution controls — which would have created jobs and supply chain local economic impacts — if they had chosen to. Rather, critics say, companies that bought older coal plants in the past decade or two were essentially gambling on spot energy prices and trying to make quick profits, instead of taking a long-range view of economically-stable and responsible energy production.

Interestingly, even with the closing of so many coal-burning power plants and the layoffs of coal plant workers, there is actually reportedly still high demand for workers to mine coal, and coal prices remain high. That’s because China still has ravenous demand for coal, fueled in part by exports from the U.S. Last fall, Businessweek reported that even offering starting salaries of $70,000 and up, Appalachian mines are unable to find enough people with the requisite skills and health willing to work underground. The story reports:

With prices near record levels and coal exports climbing to the highest rate in almost 20 years, mines will need to hire 17,000 workers by 2018, government figures show. But like Coleman, many young people from coal-rich regions view mining as too dangerous…Drug use in communities where coal mining jobs are available has [also] made recruiting more difficult, union and industry officials say. Alpha Natural Resources

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has blasted anti-coal activists, including the Sierra Club. A February 3 release quotes President Cecil E. Roberts decrying the Sierra Club for taking millions of dollars from natural gas industry interests:

Now we know why this so-called independent’ organization has been such an advocate for another form of fossil fuel and against using cutting-edge technology that would make using coal to generate electricity just as clean as natural gas…They’ve cynically put people at risk for years to come with this campaign, and made themselves little more than tools of an energy industry competitor in the bargain.

Let’s get real here: Just like any business, the gas companies are about selling gas, period. And they will gladly funnel cash to any organization that will help them do it.

The Sierra Club has stopped accepting donations from the gas industry, and advocates the development of job-creating clean energy sources as part of its campaign against coal. Its website says:

The wind and solar industries each already employ more people in the U.S. than the coal-mining industry, with thousands of clean energy companies putting people to work in every state in the Union…And with more than one out of every four people working in clean energy working in manufacturing and exports, clean energy is one of the best ways to continue seeing Made in the U.S.A” stamped on products.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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