Thursday, April 28, 2016

U.S. could learn from Europe's approach to coal

The United States could learn a lesson from Europe in how to survive a decline of the coal industry, Joshua Zaffos writes for High Country News. In Europe "unemployment benefits generally last longer, job-training programs are more extensive and retirement benefits are better protected. That makes it easier for both industry and mining communities to weather the hard times when they come."

"West and East Germany relied heavily on coal for power and jobs following World War II," Zaffos reports. "But coal mines began declining following reunification in the 1990s. In the western part of the country, the high costs of continued 'hard coal' mining from deep geological formations has forced some closures as prices have dropped. Eastern Germany has the most productive lignite mines in the world, but lignite, also known as soft or brown coal, is extremely dirty, emitting much more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when consumed. The government is now scaling back those operations as part of Germany’s national effort to address climate change, and to restructure its energy policy to reduce carbon-spewing coal and fossil fuel use and invest in renewables. ... Germany’s environmental minister is pushing to stop mining and burning coal entirely by 2040."

"The U.S., in contrast, has no such comprehensive national-level climate action or energy policy," Zaffos writes. Miners and energy officials "continue to blame President Obama and the Clean Power Plan, rather than global economic and environmental pressures, for the downfall of coal, and many refuse to support climate action or even acknowledge climate change. With plenty of congressional support for that viewpoint, the U.S. has come up with only relatively minor coordinated efforts to manage sweeping energy trends. Instead of getting behind deliberate and comprehensive energy policies or climate-change planning, U.S. lawmakers have allowed global energy market forces to buffet the industry and energy workers, with few resources offered to ease the pain."

"Through German government and industry agreements that began nearly a decade ago, mining subsidies will be phased out by 2018, creating a 'soft landing' for workers and companies, compared with the typical U.S. pattern of unexpected layoffs and abrupt bankruptcies," Zaffos writes. "The arrangements aim to allow much of the over-40 workforce to move out of the mines and ease into retirement, while younger workers can go through job retraining to meet the growing need for skilled labor in engineering, technology, and other industries. Germany has a strong tradition of vocational training and apprenticeship programs, supported by unions, the government and employers."

"In Germany, the mining, energy and chemical industry trade union is one of the nation’s largest and strongest," Zaffos writes. "Unions do more than lobby to keep coal mines open and jobs in place; they also work to maintain welfare and retirement benefits and pensions for their members—and they support negotiated phase-outs"  In contrast, the United Mine Workers has seen its members drop from 800,000 in the 1930s to just 35,000 active and 40,000 retired miners today, with only 5 percent of mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction workers being union members in 2014. (Read more)

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