ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Frank Stupak got his start in the coal business just as it was beginning its steep decline, and while there’s little chance the industry will ever return to its glory days, the 27-year-old safety manager isn’t giving up hope.
“We know what our industry did for this country. Hopefully someday we’ll get back there,” he said while deep inside an Ohio County Coal Company mine along the Ohio-West Virginia border, coal dust filling the air around him and the sound of machinery nearly drowning out his voice.
Mr. Stupak came to work for the Ohio County Coal Company — a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp., the nation’s largest coal-mining operation — after briefly attending college but deciding “it wasn’t really my thing.”
To some, his career choice may seem foolish.
The industry is losing jobs at a rapid pace, the result of both Obama administration environmental regulations and the rise of cheaper, cleaner natural gas, an increasingly appealing option for utilities.
Murray Energy Corp. — led by its tough-talking, often-inflammatory CEO, Robert Murray — hasn’t been immune. The company shed more than 1,400 jobs earlier this year. It now counts among its ranks roughly 7,000 employees, though the company has done relatively well compared to the industry as a whole.
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Fewer than 70,000 people now work in the coal-mining industry itself, down about 20 percent in just the past five years, federal figures show. From 2008 to 2012, the coal sector lost about 50,000 jobs, according to Duke University data, and the trend has continued since.
The job losses are projected to continue as the administration moves ahead with regulations — including the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from power plants — explicitly designed to phase coal out of the U.S. energy mix. Coal now is responsible for 37 percent of America’s electricity, down from nearly 50 percent at the start of President Obama’s time in office.
“We’ve never seen anything like this devastation,” said Mr. Murray, the 75-year-old Murray Energy Corp. CEO who is both the loudest remaining champion of coal and also the administration’s chief foe in court, leading various lawsuits challenging numerous pieces of the president’s environmental agenda.
In areas such as St. Clairsville, Ohio, where Murray Energy Corp. maintains its headquarters, some residents believe their region has been under direct assault by the federal government.
Many seem less interested in a conversation about the finer points of federal climate change policy and more concerned about what’s already happened to their communities and what may happen in the future.
“They’re shutting these power plants down. When they get cold or get too hot, they’ll finally realize that the windmills and stuff are not going to do it,” Richard Clay, a 71-year-old retired electrician from St. Clairsville, said recently as he threw back a late-afternoon beer at the West Texas Roadhouse, one of several bars on the outskirts of town, just a few miles from the Murray Energy Corp. complex.
Throughout the entire region, fears persist about the ripple effects of coal’s decline. Some say coal miners are being unfairly singled out to the detriment of local economies.
“You can’t punish those people because of energy, because we haven’t developed better energy sources. You can’t punish those people. It’s not their fault. They’re just there working, trying to make a living,” said Jennifer Estep, owner of Nicol’s Family Restaurant in Zanesville, Ohio, about an hour’s drive west from St. Clairsville.
“Everything is affected,” she said of the consequences of coal’s downturn. “If [coal miners] don’t have any money to go out and eat, then I’m out of business.”
For its part the administration is pushing plans to help coal communities survive and to place out-of-work miners in other lines of work.
The administration has proposed an initiative, dubbed the “POWER + Plan,” to pour billions of dollars into coal communities for job training, infrastructure investments and other efforts that, in theory, will put displaced coal miners back to work.
The extensive plan has gone nowhere through the normal federal budget process, though the administration has used existing funds to aid coal communities. Last month, for example, the administration doled out $14 million for worker retraining, infrastructure investment and other initiatives in Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton also has embraced that concept in recent weeks, releasing a detailed plan to keep coal communities from sinking into an economic abyss.
“Building a 21st century clean energy economy in the United States will create new jobs and industries, deliver important health benefits, and reduce carbon pollution. But we can’t ignore the impact this transition is already having on mining communities, or the threat it poses to the healthcare and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families,” the Clinton campaign said in a lengthy proposal that represents the most detailed policy prescription for aiding coal communities from any candidate in either party.
“This is particularly true in Appalachia, where production has been declining for decades, but impacts are beginning to be felt in the Illinois Basin and Western coalfields as well. And it’s not limited to mining communities: reduced coal shipments impact barge and railroad workers, and power plant closures can contribute to local job loss and economic distress,” the proposal continued, explaining how Mrs. Clinton would dedicate at least $30 billion to secure miners’ pensions and health benefits, invest in rural schools, boost infrastructure projects, fund new job-training programs and take other badly needed steps.
Inside the Ohio County Coal Company mine — which puts out about 26,000 tons of usable coal each day — Mr. Stupak and his colleagues don’t talk much about federal retraining programs. Instead, they’re usually discussing their families, or explaining to visitors to the mine — including many U.S. and foreign media outlets — how the whole operation works.
In more personal terms, many of the miners say they simply aren’t interested in finding work elsewhere if their company shuts down.
“Everything I have comes from coal mining. It’s all I’ve done. I don’t know any better,” said Kevin Hughes, 58, general manager and vice president of operations at the Ohio Coal County Company and a 40-year veteran of the industry.
Mr. Stupak and Mr. Hughes spoke as conveyor belts sent a seemingly endless supply of coal out of the dimly lit mine. The mine is one of 17 longwall mines operated by Murray Energy. The longwall mining process, Mr. Murray explained, is more efficient than other forms, such as continuous mining.
Longwall mining relies on machinery — including the “shearer,” which can best be described as a bigger version of a deli slicer — to, in essence, shave coal off from the seams. Continuous mining, by contrast, rips coal from the seams and generally requires more manpower and more setup and tear-down time.
In addition to its 17 longwall mines, Murray also owns and operates 15 coal preparation plants, 600 barges, four mining machinery facilities and a host of other assets.
The company produces about 88 million tons of processed coal each year, and Mr. Murray argues his company will survive the industry’s downturn because of its laserlike focus on longwall mining and operating sites near water to minimize land transportation costs.
But leaders in the environmental movement argue that fossil fuel champions like Mr. Murray and his allies in Congress are willfully misleading Mr. Stupak, Mr. Hughes and others by pushing the narrative that coal will remain viable in the coming years.
Anti-coal activists say it’s time for all sides to admit the fuel’s future is bleak, at best, and that all stakeholders should work to find new career paths for miners.
“I think there is actually a huge amount of common ground. Everybody wants clean air, everybody wants clean water,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, the largest and most successful anti-coal campaign in American history. “Frankly, where we have been let down is by some of our political leaders in the region who have found it easier — and I think some of the coal companies as well — have found it easier to pit people against one another than to try and solve some of these problems.”
Those political leaders include, among many others, Sen. James M. Inhofe, who has become one of the top opponents of Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda on Capitol Hill.
The Senate last week passed a resolution disapproving of a key piece of Mr. Obama’s carbon regulations, and Mr. Inhofe, Mr. Murray and many others believe the carbon plan ultimately will be struck down in court.
“There are numerous legal problems with the Obama administration’s carbon rules. There will be no possibility of legislative resurrection once the courts render the final judgments on the president’s carbon mandates. Our economy deserves better than being forced to take on the unjust burden of a potentially illegal mandate that we cannot afford,” Mr. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in a statement.