By Casey Junkins, Wheeling Intelligencer
WHEELING - Robert Murray has spent decades filling America's energy needs through his Belmont County coal operations. Now, he faces the realization those operations could be ending as the federal government continues what he terms a "war on coal."
In late June, President Barack Obama announced he had directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on carbon emissions, specifically those coming from coal-fired power plants, to "prepare our nation for the unavoidable impact of climate change."
Many in the coal industry believe this signaled another step in the administration's move to end the use of coal - this time by targeting power plant emissions.
Murray heads the country's largest independent coal operation, Murray Energy Corp. He and other Ohio Valley coal operators employ 3,664 direct workers in the industry. Another 1,046 jobs can be found at local coal-fired power plants.
All of those jobs could be in jeopardy under the president's latest plan, Murray said.
Coal mining remains one of the best-paying jobs in the Ohio Valley, and also one of the toughest. Local coal miners earned average annual salaries of $88,000 during 2012, according to information from the mining companies. Those working at coal-fired power plants took home an average of $68,000. The employment numbers do not count the thousands of jobs connected to coal throughout the region that likely would be eliminated if coal mines are closed in northern West Virginia and East Ohio.
Murray Energy Corp. operates the Powhatan No. 6 mine and the Century Mine in Belmont County, and also continues to operate the Redbird West Mine in Jefferson County. Murray said 810 employees work at the Century Mine, with another 684 at Powhatan No. 6 and No. 66 at Redbird West. Together, the mines paid about $57.2 million in federal, state and local taxes last year.
Consol Energy operates the Shoemaker and McElroy mines in Marshall County, as well as a number of other mines throughout the region. According to Consol, 1,000 employees worked at the McElroy Mine in 2012, while 751 worked at Shoemaker. The company paid $86 million in federal, state and local taxes for its two Marshall County mines last year.
Alliance Coal operates the Tunnel Ridge Mine in Ohio County, while Oxford Resource Partners maintains some surface mining operations in eastern Ohio. Statistics provided by the West Virginia Department of Commerce list 353 coal miners working in Ohio County, with Tunnel Ridge being the county's only active mine.
Coal also remains the most economical means by which to produce electricity, accounting for about 40 percent of all electrical generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
American Electric Power provides coal-fired electricity to residents in Ohio, Marshall, Belmont, Jefferson, Harrison and Monroe counties, with much of this power generated at the Kammer and Mitchell plants in Marshall County and the Cardinal Plant in Jefferson County.
AEP spokeswoman Tamara Ridout said there are about 350 workers at the Cardinal facility, and the company paid $1.8 million in taxes last year. At Mitchell, there are 275 employees, while Kammer - which is scheduled to close within the next two years - has 55 workers. AEP paid $13.5 million in taxes for Mitchell last year and $3.9 million for Kammer.
FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Thornton said that company is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent by 2015, which she said would actually exceed Obama's requirements.
FirstEnergy's W.H. Sammis Plant in Jefferson County is the company's largest generation facility in Ohio.
FirstEnergy employs 366 workers at the coal-fired plant, while the company will pay $5.5 million in taxes for that facility this year.
FirstEnergy announced recently it will deactivate two coal-fired power plants in Masontown, Pa., and Courtney, Pa., by Oct. 9, removing 2,080 megawatts from the company's generating capacity. FirstEnergy estimates it will cost the company $925 million to comply with the president's new regulations.
The President's Plan
At the core of Obama's plan are controls on power plants that emit carbon dioxide. The program aims to boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. Obama called for the U.S. to be a global leader in the search for solutions.
The plan includes three main policy tracks, according to the Associated Press. The first addresses emissions of greenhouse gases from new and existing power plants. The second track helps prepare the U.S. for the effects of climate change. The final track includes provisions to work with the international community to address global warming, both from an emissions reduction and climate adaptation standpoint.
The EPA will be in charge of drafting and implementing the rules on power plant emissions, while the Interior Department would be tasked with increasing the use of renewable energy on public lands.
Murray said the new regulations could end his local operations.
"If left alone, we could mine in eastern Ohio with our current 1,600 direct employees until around 2030. But, we are being closed long before then by Barack Obama and his supporters," Murray said.
Murray often cites a Penn State University study that suggests for each of his coal jobs, up to 11 secondary jobs are supported in the local area.
"Tax revenue will rapidly decline and the need for goods and services will drastically fall. People will be forced to abandon their homes for whatever price that they can get for them and move out of the area," he said.
"Definitely, at least two of our major eastern Ohio operations will be permanently closed," he added, noting this will be "market driven."
Wheeling Jesuit University biology professor Ben Stout said he understands that moving away from coal would be harmful to the region, but said he agrees with Obama's stance on reducing carbon air emissions.
"Eventually, we are going to run out of fossil fuels, whether its coal, gas or oil. We need to be working to find a more sustainable strategy," Stout said.
The Sierra Club - a powerful environmental lobbying group with 2.1 million members maintaining offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. - calls coal an "outdated, backward, and dirty 19th-century technology." According to OpenSecrets.org, the Sierra Club donated $452,010 to various Democrat candidates for Congress in 2012, but gave nothing to Republicans. The Sierra Club claims that burning coal leads to "as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs."
Club Executive Director Michael Brune called Obama's plan to curtail emissions "the change we have been waiting for on climate."
"Combined with the president's commitments to energy efficiency and investments in American clean energy, this plan is a strong step forward in our fight to protect our planet and our families from a climate crisis that is already hitting home with droughts, wildfires, floods, hurricanes and other forms of extreme weather," Brune said.
The 'War on Coal'
The region's Congressional delegation agrees the president's plan could have a drastic impact on West Virginia and Ohio.
"Any action on climate change is going to have a direct effect on the lives of our mining communities that are already facing great uncertainties, and on the pocketbooks of every one of our middle-class families still dealing with a recovering job market," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, said.
The nation needs to see a timeline and cost estimate of Obama's plan, and to understand just how coal communities will be supported once Obama's proposals take effect, Rockefeller said.
"The regulations the president wants to force on coal are not feasible - and if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, said. "It's clear now that the president has declared a war on coal. It's simply unacceptable that one of the key elements of his climate change proposal places regulations on coal that are completely impossible to meet with existing technology."
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said the new regulations "will put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk and cripple businesses across the United States that rely on affordable and dependable coal-provided energy."
"In my district alone, we have six coal-fired power plants that are now in jeopardy," he noted. "The president is, once again, stifling free-markets and meddling with our economy."
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, added it is critical that America reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but he said the country "must do this in a way that creates Ohio jobs rather than puts them at risk."
"That means we must utilize every available tool - investing in carbon capture technology, increasing our use of renewable energy and promoting energy efficiency in our homes and businesses," Brown said.
"But we must make sure that industries in other nations are operating under the same rules as our domestic manufacturers. We must develop global solutions that are both comprehensive and fair to Ohio workers and manufacturers."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said after failing to get Congressional approval for his environmental agenda, Obama will "unilaterally forge ahead with his job-killing plan."
"In 2008, then-Sen. Obama made threats to 'bankrupt' anyone who wants to build a new coal-fired power plant, and over the years he has used the Environmental Protection Agency as a way to accomplish that goal," she said. "Sadly, this recent announcement spells trouble for a vital industry in West Virginia that has already been hard-hit by this administration."