“We’re going to put our miners back to work.”
That has been a common refrain from President Donald Trump, both during his election campaign and since he took office. But 19 months into his term, the coal industry in Kentucky and nationwide hasn’t seen much change, despite the president’s moves to deregulate mining and coal-burning utility companies.
KET’s Kentucky Tonight discussed coal and other energy-related issues with Rep. Jim Gooch (R-Providence), chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee; Rep. McKenzie Cantrell (D-Louisville), a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee; Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association; and Chris Woolery, an energy specialist at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED).
Trump and the Coal Industry
The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the coal industry has added only about 2,000 jobs since President Trump took office. In Kentucky, a little more than 6,200 people work in coal today, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. That’s about a 5 percent drop from the employment figures at this time last year.
The president likes to blame his predecessor for the decline in the coal industry, claiming that regulations enacted during the administration of Barack Obama stifled the production and burning of coal. Energy experts say that’s only partially true. Regulations have played a small part, but a bigger factor has been the increased supply of natural gas, which is cheaper to produce and burns more cleanly than coal.
Another significant factor is increased mechanization: it takes far fewer miners to extract coal today than it did in the pick-and-shovel days, says Tyler White of the Kentucky Coal Association.
“We need our coal miners back to work,” he says. But, he adds, “They are not all going to go back in to work in the same capacity within the coal industry as they were.”
White says coal miners are unmatched in terms of their work ethic and problem-solving skills, which would be valuable to any employer looking to locate in the commonwealth. He cites retraining programs in eastern Kentucky that are preparing former miners for work in advanced manufacturing facilities and computer coding.
Another option is to retrain miners for jobs with wind and solar power, or to make homes and businesses more energy efficient. MACED’s Chris Woolery says his organization has hired several former miners to work on efficiency projects.
“We’re seeing demand from clients all across the region for energy efficiency and for renewable energy to help them address their escalating power bills,” says Woolery.
Even with the sluggish coal employment rebound under the Trump administration, state Rep. Jim Gooch remains bullish on coal’s future. He says improved technologies over the last 40 years have removed 85 percent of the pollutants from the burning of coal. He contends boosting the burning efficiency of boilers in coal-fired power plants will further reduce pollution and make coal nearly as clean-burning as natural gas. But Gooch says those advances can only happen when the industry is freed from regulations enacted by former President Obama, which he believes unfairly favored natural gas and renewables over coal.
“If we allow investments to be made and the market to work, we actually can have technologies that will improve our environment,” Gooch says. “But what we cannot do is have the federal government actually picking and choosing winners and losers.”
So far though, the current president has largely been focused on environmental policies of the past, according to state Rep. McKenzie Cantrell.
“The Trump administration’s approach right now is really just a complete repudiation of Obama-era policies,” she says. “We’re really not seeing any activity, we’re seeing more dismantling right now.”
Those regulatory rollbacks could have serious public health implications. Cantrell cites a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that indicates the Trump environmental agenda will cost the lives of 80,000 Americans each decade, and result in respiratory problems for one million people.
Last month, the Trump administration released details of its Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) plan, which is meant to replace the Clean Power Plan enacted by former President Obama. The new rules eliminate the greenhouse gas emission targets put in place by the Obama administration. They also give utilities more flexibility to keep existing coal-fired power plants in operation longer and to build new coal plants in the future.
White says the ACE plan gives Kentucky a huge economic advantage because the state derives nearly 80 percent of its electricity supply from the burning of coal. He contends ACE will help electric rates remain low in the commonwealth, which he says benefits both residential and commercial customers, and will help attract new industry to the state. It will also help stabilize the demand for Kentucky coal, he says.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own accounting says ACE could also lead to higher pollution levels and as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually due to increased emissions.
Coal and Climate Change
According to the 2018 Yale Climate Opinion study, 62 percent of adult Kentuckians think global warming is happening, and 49 percent believe human activities are to contributing to it.
“I think that climate change does exist, there’s no question about it,” says Gooch. “The climate always has changed… We haven’t understood over all those years of history what makes the climate change.”
Gooch contends early predictions about global warming didn’t come true, so scientists shifted their language to “climate change.” Now he says when people question current climate predictions, they are dismissed as ignorant or corrupt. Gooch says the environment should be protected, but people shouldn’t have to suffer while scientists debate the causes and effects of climate change.
Woolery admits weather and climate models are complicated, but he says there are some basic facts that can’t be denied: the world’s oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, and most of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade. Cantrell adds that, despite the claims of some, it is “naive” to think that human activity hasn’t had an impact on the environment. She says the effects of climate change go beyond the potential loss of life and property due to stronger storms.
“A lot of people don’t see the connection between energy policy and national security,” Cantrell says. “There’s a lot of ways that we can protect ourselves national security-wise by diversifying our energy economy. So I would like to see policymakers embrace those ideas.”
Renewable Energy Issues
The Yale climate polling also says that 81 percent of Kentucky adults support funding for research into renewable energy sources.
Woolery says prices for wind and solar installations are going down, which makes them more competitive with traditional energy sources. He says tax credits, grants, and other subsidies also make renewables affordable to more homeowners and businesses that want to reduce their energy costs. Plus, he says the renewable energy industry can be a source of new jobs for the state.
White counters by arguing that investing in renewables is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars. He contends solar and wind are inferior energy sources.
“Why don’t we start taking some of those investments and putting them into what we know are reliable, proven energy sources here in America?” White says.
Although Gooch says he supports renewable energy sources, he also contends that customers expect their lights or their air conditioning or heat to come on every time they flip a switch. He argues that the baseload of power required to guarantee that, especially during periods of peak demand, can only be provided by coal or nuclear power.
“We could wish that wind and solar could supply our needs, but wishing and hoping, that’s not an energy strategy,” says Gooch.
“It is reliable: the sun comes up every morning, and the wind blows very often when the sun is not shining,” counters Woolery. “We have fantastic folks at every utility working 24/7 to match our generation with the needs that we have.”
Beyond the reliability concerns between traditional and renewable energy sources, Cantrell says there also the question of costs related to public health.
“There’s a monetary value to what’s going on in deregulating the coal economy as well,” Cantrell says, “but it’s just hard to put a dollar figure on that.”
The sun has the benefit of being a free source of power, but it also has a drawback: the sun has to be shining to generate that power, and customers generally need a stable electricity supply 24 hours a day. Wind power has a similar problem: what do you do for electricity when the wind doesn’t blow? (Massive batteries in which to store electricity generated by wind and solar are available, but remain too expensive for many residential consumers.)
That led to the idea of “net metering,” which allows someone who generates their own solar or wind power to send the excess electricity they don’t need onto their local power grid. In return for supplying that power to the grid, the individual receives a credit from their utility company that they can use to acquire power back from the grid whenever they need it. So the individual gets reliable access to power, 24/7, and utilities get electricity that they don’t have to generate.
Currently, Kentuckians who use net metering get credit for electricity they put on the grid equal to the retail price of power. But a bill proposed by Gooch in the 2018 General Assembly would’ve lowered the value of the credit to the wholesale power rate, meaning net metering customers would get a lower-valued credit for electricity that they put onto the grid, but then would have had to pay the full retail price for power they drew from the grid.
House Bill 227 went through several iterations before eventually dying on the Senate floor in the final day of the legislative session. Gooch and White contend utility companies need the change so they can afford to maintain the power grid on which all customers rely, even those who generate some of their own power. They argue the existing net metering law benefits wealthy people who can afford to put expensive solar panels on their homes.
“I don’t want some single mom out there raising two kids or some older person on a fixed income having to pay even a little bit extra because someone is not paying their fair share for the electric grid”1), says Gooch. “When you’re not buying electrons, you’re actually not paying your fair share for the grid.”
Opponents of HB 227 feared the legislation would decrease the incentive for homeowners to cleanly generate their own power, and effectively kill the burgeoning solar industry in the commonwealth. Woolery dismisses the argument that solar customers are being unfairly subsidized through net metering. He contends that both renewable energy and traditional sources receive various government subsidies. He and Cantrell say the bigger issue is that traditional utilities see decentralized, homeowner-based energy generation as a threat to their business model.
“What it really comes down to is, utilities aren’t against solar in Kentucky,” says Wollery, “they just might be against you and I owning solar.”
As for power grid maintenance, Woolery says utilities could simply increase customer base charges or meter fees to cover those costs.
Black Lung in Coal Miners
Although coal production and mining-related employment are at historical lows in the commonwealth, the rate of miners suffering pneumoconiosis or black-lung disease has reached a record high. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says more than 20 percent of Kentucky miners have some form of the debilitating disease. The report also says the national prevalence of pneumoconiosis cases has increased steadily since 2000.
Even with black lung on the rise, Kentucky miners may find it harder to get diagnosed for the disease under a bill passed by state lawmakers earlier this year. The workers’ compensation reforms embodied in House Bill 2 include a provision that requires a pulmonologist to make a black-lung diagnosis rather than a radiologist who reviews a patient X-ray.
Since there are far fewer lung specialists than radiologists in Kentucky, Cantrell says the law will effectively limit a patient’s access to a proper diagnosis.
“There’s definitely a concern out there that the existing pool of doctors who are going to be qualified under this statute to read scans could be all hired by insurance companies who represent coal,” says Cantrell. “Or workers would have to travel out of state to have their scans read and to receive a fair reading and a fair diagnosis of their problem.”
Gooch argues that the change will make it easier for injured miners to get the benefits they deserve. He says black lung claims used to be determined by administrative law judges who varied widely on the percentage of cases they approved. White says miners deserve to have a comprehensive review of their ailment conducted by a lung specialist.
“There’s nobody that cares more about the health effects of our workers than the coal industry,” White says. “We believe that a pulmonologist is the most qualified medical professional to diagnose pneumoconiosis.”