Coal vs. Climate: In Copenhagen, Miners’ Union Tries to Balance Interests

Akito Yoshikane

American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant, including cooling tower and stacks in New Haven, W. Va.

A sense of urgency looms over Copenhagen as nearly 200 nations gather to discuss a new environmental agreement. But with international and domestic calls to invest in green jobs and infrastructure, how are U.S. workers in emission-producing industries responding to and participating in the high-level talks?

As talks of curbing pollution increase, fossil-fuel burning industries like coal are at the center of discussion. Representatives from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) are in Copenhagen where the stakes of a new climate framework are high. Any agreement will directly affect their livelihoods and the future of their industry. They are among the 40 other union members from the U.S. in Copenhagen as part of a 400-member worker delegation spearheaded by the International Trade Union Confederation, according to the AFL-CIO.

While industrialized and developing nations tussle over climate drafts, the U.S. has also stepped up its domestic efforts to curb emissions. In response, unions have taken an active approach and are responding by calling for a just transition” amid any changes in affected industries such as coal.

Coal is heavily relied upon for energy, but is also a major pollutant. A relatively cheap fossil fuel compared to oil or natural gas, fifty percent of the electricity generated in the United States is from coal. Yet coal use accounts for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s more, as energy demands are projected to grow, countries with major coal reserves like the U.S., China and India will continue to increase consumption. With clarion calls by nations to lay down a framework following the Kyoto Protocol, coupled with growing U.S. legislation to reduce emissions, the steps have the UMWA worried about the threat of job losses.

At a U.S. House Energy and Environment Subcommittee hearing on climate change in April, UMWA lawyer Eugene M. Trisko described the impact of environmental laws on the coal industry:

The UMWA recognizes that climate change legislation poses the greatest threat to its membership and to the continued use of coal. Achieving the proper balance among technology incentives and the timing and stringency of emissions reductions will be essential for obtaining bipartisan support for climate legislation.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s initiative to draft rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions has been alarming for the union. The annoucement by the EPA on Monday that greenhouse gases endanger public health probably did not quell industry anxiety.

In a September op-ed in the Charleston Gazette, the president of the UMWA, Cecil E. Roberts, said of the EPA:

No one who works in the coal industry should have any illusions about this. The impact of EPA regulations will mean a relatively swift and painful reduction in coal production and coal jobs. That is the last thing anyone related to our industry should want.

To be clear, the UMWA has expressed support to adapt to the changing environmental landscape. Roberts has acknowledged the science that climate change is real. The union has supported ideas such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that separates carbon dioxide for storage in underground formations. Still, their support for climate legislation has been measured. Support for bills like the Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 and the Waxman-Markey bill is still ongoing.

A statement made by the International Trade Union Confederation in lieu of the climate change meetings on job stability also stands in contrast to the UMWA:

While employment protection has sometimes been cited as a reason for not engaging in GHG emission reductions, the available evidence indicates that climate change mitigation has positive net employment effects. Trade unions believe that climate change represents a potentially positive opportunity to create jobs on the basis of a sustainable and fair society.

When world leaders meet next week in Copenhagen to round out the climate talks, workers will also be meeting nearby to discuss ideas at the World of Work Pavillion. As the move toward environmental sustainability continues, the tension between climate goals and potential ramifications they may have on working people’s jobs is sure to intensify.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Brandon Johnson
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