Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Joe Did What? Coal edition


Mountaintop mining in West Virginia: Image by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via Marketplace, and a story on Trump administration zeroing out funding for a study on the health hazards of the process.

In what I think is a stunning sign of support for the Biden administration and its infrastructure program/Green Newish Deal, President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America showed up at the Press Club yesterday with Senator Joe Manchin (Difficult-WV) by his side, to announce that his union would back, specifically, the administration's plan for phasing out the coal industry, sort of:

The United States’s largest coal miners’ union said Monday it would accept President Joe Biden’s plan to move away from coal and other fossil fuels in exchange for a “true energy transition” that includes thousands of jobs in renewable energy and spending on technology to make coal cleaner.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said ensuring jobs for displaced miners — including 7,000 coal workers who lost their jobs last year — is crucial to any infrastructure bill taken up by Congress. (Aljazeera)

Which is bigger than it sounds in the first place because the things he's demanding are already there in the plan, more or less:

  • Build next generation industries in distressed communities. President Biden believes that the market-based shift toward clean energy presents enormous opportunities for the development of new markets and new industries. For example, by pairing an investment in 15 decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects in distressed communities with a new production tax credit, we can spur capital-project retrofits and installations that bolster and decarbonize our industry. The President’s plan also will establish ten pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities, all while ensuring that overburdened communities are protected from increases in cumulative pollution. In addition, in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act, his plan will support large-scale sequestration efforts that leverage the best science and prioritize community engagement. And to accelerate responsible carbon capture deployment and ensure permanent storage, President Biden’s plan reforms and expands the bipartisan Section 45Q tax credit, making it direct pay and easier to use for hard-to-decarbonize industrial applications, direct air capture, and retrofits of existing power plants.
  • Mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers. This $10 billion investment will put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.

The "make coal cleaner" aspect is there in the "carbon capture" language applying the "best science" to "demonstration projects" and enhancing the tax incentive for putting anything learned in these projects into wider use (which I really don't think, in the end, there will be, whence all the scare quotes). I think I can promise such projects won't be the on the lines of the $100-billion monster ExxonMobil has been calling for, because the administration seems to have ruled that out already (according to Politico coverage). 

If the best science were to succeed in making carbon capture responsible, practical, and scalable (see this fivethirtyeight piece on the odds), that really wouldn't be a bad thing. Meanwhile the main thing will be the retraining of displaced miners (and training of the next generation) for the new green jobs, and that's what counts.

Part of the deal seems to be Roberts's appreciation for a different part of the Biden agenda, the pro-labor PRO Act recently passed by the House and stuck in the Senate, which would strike down right-to-work laws that allow workers to benefit from union collective bargaining without paying dues (yes, you would think Manchin, who endorsed the bill during the appearance yesterday, would realize he's the reason the bill is stuck in the Senate, because of his opposition to filibuster reform—I almost wonder if he's preparing his voters for the day he reverses himself on that). But there's also the emotional resonance Republicans have had a monopoly on:

“Basically what is needed … is the human infrastructure,” Manchin said. “You can’t leave anybody behind,” especially those in his hard-hit state, which has lost thousands of jobs in mining and other resource extraction industries jobs in recent years.

“I can tell you how West Virginia feels. We feel like returning Vietnam veterans,” Manchin said. “We’ve done every dirty job you’ve asked us to do. We never questioned. We did it and performed well. And now all of a sudden we’re not good enough, we’re not clean enough, we’re not green enough and we’re not smart enough. You want to know why they quit voting for Democrats, that’s the reason.”

To me it's whiny, and I really don't like it, especially in the mouth of a multimillionaire from a family that's been selling groceries and dominating his hometown's local politics for three generations, but I guess it works.

The politics of the development is really exciting nevertheless, because the plight of the dying coal industry has played such a crazily outsize part in the recent fate of the Democratic party in Appalachian and part-Appalachian states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and of course West Virginia—not to mention Montana—as bogus Republican promises to save the jobs have tended to win out over honest Democratic proposals to take care of the people. The union's small-c conservative suspicion of such programs, rooted in the sense that they represent a threat to hillbilly culture and reinforced by an understandable cynicism over whether government ever actually does anything,, has been a big factor in resistance to change, and Roberts's turnaround could mark a real shift in that, in line with the increasing nationwide concern over global warming and environmental degradation. I'm not even kidding, folks.

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