By Rachel Frazin
November 8, 2022 - The backlash to President Biden’s comments last week about shutting down coal plants illustrates that the declining industry still has influence on American politics.
On Friday, Biden said “we’re going to be shutting these [coal] plants down all across America and having wind and solar.”
In response, key Senate swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) called the remarks “offensive and disgusting,” accusing the president of taking job losses lightly.
“President Biden’s comments are not only outrageous and divorced from reality, they ignore the severe economic pain the American people are feeling because of rising energy costs,” he said, while calling on Biden to apologize.
But the backlash came from a variety of sources including a mining lobby group, Republicans like former President Trump and the United Mine Workers of America union.
“It’s easy to talk about ending an industry that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in Appalachia and the Midwest, but the reality of such an action is harsh,” the union said.
The White House quickly released a statement reaffirming Biden’s commitment to coal workers, adding the president’s comments had been “twisted to suggest a meaning that was not intended.”
Phil Smith, executive assistant to the president of United Mine Workers of America, said Biden’s Friday comments missed the nuance of his climate policies.
“One of the things that they’ve made clear … is that they want to make sure that there are jobs for folks who lose their jobs — traditional energy jobs — to go to,” Smith said of the Biden administration.
“They’ve also been pretty clear about wanting to develop and fund [and] deploy technology like carbon capture and sequestration which would allow coal-fired power plants to continue to operate well into the future in a carbon neutral way. … Both of those elements were missing from the president’s remarks,” he added.
The incident demonstrates the difficult task of Biden and the Democrats: balancing climate solutions with economic concerns.
Coal is a very carbon-intensive fuel; it contributes even more to climate change when burned than even other fossil fuels like oil and gas.
The industry has also seen a decline in recent years. From its peak in 2008 to 2021, U.S. annual coal production fell by about 51 percent. Its workforce has also seen steep declines.
As the country undergoes an economic and climate transition away from sources of energy that generate more greenhouse gasses, the Biden administration has vowed to make it a “just transition” and help workers find new jobs.
In remarks on Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Biden was “commenting on a fact of economics and technology” rather than making “some novel comments.”
Although coal is on the decline, thousands of workers still work at coal mines and power plants in West Virginia and parts of Wyoming, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, which is a key state in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
West Virginia, Manchin’s home state, produces nearly 13 percent of the country’s coal — making it the second largest producer behind Wyoming.
Manchin himself also holds significant investments in coal.
In the 50-50 divided Senate, Manchin is a key swing vote, and Democrats courted him for about a year in order to pass their climate, tax and health care bill.
During that time, Manchin was able to eliminate a proposal that would have used incentives and penalties to shift the country’s electricity generation away from fossil fuels like coal and gas and toward greener energy sources. In ultimately agreeing to a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he also voted in favor of bolstering funds for miners suffering from black lung disease.
“Sen. Manchin certainly has a great deal of influence on both sides of the aisle and in the White House and elsewhere within Washington,” Smith said.
He suggested that the dynamics that gave Manchin particular sway may have “created room for people to pay attention” to issues impacting coal miners.
Yet Manchin’s future influence is uncertain, particularly if Republicans take control of the Senate in this week’s election.
One key Senate race is in Pennsylvania, which is responsible for about 7 percent of the country’s coal. Coal workers occupied 4,300 jobs in the state last year.
But, the influence of coal on local, statewide and even national politics may extend beyond just the number of jobs. Smith called these jobs the “drivers of the economies in these communities,” adding that “the taxes that these employers pay drive the community’s ability to provide services.”
He suggested that in states like West Virginia, most voters are probably either directly or indirectly reliant on the coal industry.
“If they don’t live in a community that’s coal reliant, someone in their family does,” he said.
The challenge facing the Biden administration is keeping those communities intact while meeting its promises to steer the energy sector toward greener fuels.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club are pushing to end the use of coal and other fossil fuels for power generation, noted Holly Bender, a senior director of energy campaigns for the organization.
And she called the Biden administration “a huge ally in transitioning to clean electricity.”