Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why Mitch McConnell Hates Coal Miners

Earlier this week, the Senate voted to block two key initiatives from the EPA intended to reduce emission from coal-fired power plants and halt global warming. Using a familiar tactic, Republicans leading the fight justified their votes by pitting progress on climate change against progress on job growth. In reality, we don't need to choose between the two, and even if we did, we shouldn't care that much about protecting coal mining jobs.

Mitch McConnell, senior senator from Kentucky (and senior mutant neocon turtle), led the attack on the EPA and President Obama:
These regulations make it clearer than ever that the president and his administration have gone too far, and that Congress should act to stop this regulatory assault. [...] Here's what is lost in this administration's crusade for ideological purity: the livelihoods of our coal miners and their families. Folks who haven't done anything to deserve a 'war' being declared upon them.
As a native Kentuckian myself, I admit there's an instinctual response to defend coal miners. We're a coal state after all, right?

Well, yes and no. Kentucky is the third largest coal producing state, behind Wyoming and West Virginia. However, there are only about 12,000 coal miners employed in Kentucky, which accounts for less that 1% of total jobs statewide. Moreover,  coal mine production amounts to just over 1% of the state's total GDP.

So it turns out, coal isn't as big a part of the Kentucky economy as you might think. In fact, there aren't that many coal miners in the U.S. as a whole. The Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence estimates that there are 78,300 coal mining jobs in America. Fortune puts that number a bit higher at just over 93,000. That means coal mining employs .006% of the current workforce -- at best.

But when you think about it, those numbers aren't all that surprising. Alternative energies are growing as technologies become more affordable. Plus, coal mining is a shitty job. The life of a coal miner is nasty, brutish, and short -- largely thanks to diseases like cancer and black lung, in combination with poor safety conditions in mines. And coal mining doesn't pay particularly well either. Again, looking just at Kentucky, the Appalachian counties in which coal mining is most prevalent are consistently among the poorest counties in the U.S.

Finally, it's worth noting that progress always comes at a price. Remember the pianist who played Vaudeville tunes to accompany silent films. Of course you don't. Since you've been alive, theaters have only shown "talkies." Huzzah! Hell, the expansion of electrical services that coal-fired power plants contributed to also perpetuated the decline of kerosine lamp manufacturing. It was worth the trade each time, and the same is true now.

It's disingenuous to accuse Obama of waging a war on coal miners when in truth their jobs are just collateral damage in a larger battle. I doubt there are many politicians that truly relish in eliminating jobs. But quite frankly, coal mining jobs aren't worth protecting, especially at the cost of addressing the more pressing problem of global warming. And if Mitch McConnell and the other Senate Republicans really gave a damn about coal miners, they'd try to find them better jobs, doing literally anything else.

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