Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 9.26.19
Just Outside Washington


Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go...

Coal mining jobs in the U.S. peaked in 1920 at 785,000 when a miner produced less than one ton per year. That number has dropped pretty steadily ever since (see chart below). However, coal production increased steadily until 2008, when it peaked at 1,172 million tons.

Since 2008 the U.S. coal production has generally moved down as can be seen in the Energy Information Agency (EIA) chart below. The reason for both the increase in production and the decrease in employment has been increasing productivity due to technology in the industry.



The decline since 2008 has been mainly due to the increase in the use of natural gas, which is cheaper and requires less capital-intensive power plants, a double incentive.

In June 2017, President Trump said: "The mines are starting to open up. We're having a big opening in two weeks. Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, so many places. A big opening of a brand-new mine. It's unheard of. For many, many years, that hasn't happened. They asked me if I'd go. I'm going to try." He went on to say: "...we're putting the people and we're putting the miners back to work."

However, I think what President Trump meant to say was he was putting the coal industry owners and executives to work. For example:

1. Trump nominated retired coal mining executive, David Zatezalo to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2010 and 2011, Zatezalo was a top executive with Rhino Resource Partners (a limited partnership focused on coal and energy related assets and activities) when the company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines it owned in West Virginia and Kentucky. Zatezalo is also a former chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and the Kentucky Coal Association.

2. Trump nominated Andrew Wheeler, an attorney, to serve as the 15th Administrator of the U.S EPA; Wheeler was confirmed. Wheeler previously worked in the law firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, representing coal magnate Robert E. Murray and lobbying against the Obama Administration's environmental regulations. Wheeler served as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and to the chairman Senator James Inhofe, who is known for his denial of climate change. Wheeler is also a critic of limits on greenhouse gas emissions and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

3. Trump nominated Wilber Ross to be Secretary of Commerce. Ross founded WL Ross & Co, which in turn founded International Coal Group in 2004 after acquiring the assets of several bankrupt coal companies. In 2006, the Sago Mine disaster, an explosion in a coal mine indirectly owned by International Coal Group, led to the deaths of 12 miners. The mine had 12 roof collapses in 2005, and United States Department of Labor data showed 208 citations for safety violations in that same period, including 21 times for build-up of toxic gases. Miners and their families accused Ross of ignoring safety violations.

4. Trump appointed Steven Winberg to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy. Winberg previously served as vice president for research and development at Consol Energy and as a senior program manager with the Battelle Memorial Institute. Winberg was the board chair for the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, a coalition of power producers, coal producers, and equipment manufacturers which was established to pursue a public/private partnership to build the world's first near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant.

5. Trump appointed Kelly Craft to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, our second most important diplomatic position. Craft, a Kentucky native, is a major donor to the Republican Party and guess who? Mitch McConnell. Her diplomatic credentials include two years as the U.S. Ambassador to Canada; a job from which she was absent about half the time. Her husband, Joe Craft, is the head of Alliance Resource Partners, one of the nation's biggest coal companies.

I am sure that there are deserving members of the coal industry that I have missed. President Trump, however, did miss the laid off coal miners in Kentucky who protested for their back pay by blocking the railroad track that carries coal trains. Their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1.

And, you know how that goes: the execs get "retention bonuses", lawyers and consultants get big fees, and workers lose their jobs and pensions.

Contrary to President Trump's statement: "The mines are starting to open up..." mines like Blackjewel's are closing. Blackjewel claimed: "operational issues in its mines" and "a combination of declining commodity prices, reduced domestic demand for thermal and metallurgical coal, and increased oversight and costs associated with regulatory compliance" made it go bankrupt.

Yeh, right! I am sure the Trump Administration will find jobs for the Blackjewel folks.