By Emily Sanders
A health care fund for retired coal miners has become a political bargaining chip. Maintained in part by federal money, the 70-year-old fund is now nearly empty. Congress has until the end of April to come up with a fix, or 22,000 retirees could lose their coverage.
While not a source of conflict in previous years, the looming deadline has divided lawmakers. Should Congress fail to come up with a solution, it will be members of Trump’s core constituency that feel the brunt — people like retired coal miner Alfred Price.
One would never guess that Price, who lives with his wife in West Virginia, had been put on medication for fits of aggression. He is tall and soft-spoken, except when gushing about his six grandchildren.
Price worked for Peabody Energy and its spinoff company, Patriot Coal, in West Virginia for nearly 30 years. When those companies went bankrupt, they cut pensions and health benefits for retirees. Now, Price is at risk of losing the insurance he was promised would last the rest of his life.
In addition to the uncontrollable mood swings he experienced before going on medication, Price’s memory is so compromised that he can’t recall his telephone number. He also struggles with poor nerve function, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, imbalance, tremors, and Lupus, which could prevent him from having operations in the future — issues that surfaced during his time in the Montcoal #7 Preparation Plant in Raleigh County, West Virginia.
It began with a chemical called polyacrylamide — known to workers as “flock.” Flock is a known neurotoxin and likely carcinogen. Price used the chemical to separate coal from impurities like slate before it was loaded for transport. He also worked with other toxic chemicals, including antifreeze, which he sprayed onto train cars to preventing coal from sticking to their sides.
In 1997, Price was diagnosed with cognitive impairments by several doctors and neuropsychologists and was forced into early retirement from the Upper Big Branch mine. He lost 48 percent of his pension because he retired before the age of 50.
“The head of neurology at West Virginia University said I could never work again for who I was working for,” said Price. “It was no longer safe for me to be at work.”
Price was not the only worker at his plant to suffer health complications. In 2002, he and 10 other workers levied a class action lawsuit against Peabody for knowingly subjecting workers to unsafe conditions and neglecting to warn them that the chemicals they used were harmful. The lawsuit was dismissed in light of Peabody’s bankruptcy filings, which, Price said, allowed the company to continue operations across the country while ignoring its obligation to retirees.
“They’re still making their billions, but won’t cover old miners who can’t afford to pay these costs every month,” Price said.
The miners did file another lawsuit against the company’s chemical manufacturers — but after nearly nine years of trials, their only compensation was a one-time physical examination that was not intended to determine whether patients had been harmed by chemicals.
Peabody recently emerged from bankruptcy, having cut its $8 billion of debt down to a mere $2 billion. While the company is financially rehabilitated, the workers who operate its mines face an increasingly precarious future.
“When I grew up, if you worked for the company, you got retirement benefits and spousal benefits,” said retired Peabody employee Gary Bone. “ You could say ‘no’ to things if you knew they weren’t safe… There ain’t no such thing now.”
That doesn’t mean that Bone retired unscathed. During his years in the mines, he was exposed to asbestos and numerous dangerous chemicals. Today, he has mesothelioma, and, though he is on Medicare, he must pay out-of-pocket each month for breathing medication.
Some aren’t so lucky. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the mining, quarrying, gas and oil extraction industries are nearly four times as likely to die on the job as the average U.S. worker. “Any time you work in the coal industry, your safety is at risk,” said Price. “There’s enough danger in the mines as it is. If you take away just one protection, it could be fatal.”
More than a decade after Price retired from his job at the Upper Big Branch mine, a coal dust explosion killed 29 workers at the facility. The fatalities included Price’s closest friend.
Massey Energy owned the mine at the time of the disaster. The firm’s CEO, Don Blankenship, was sentenced to one year in prison for failing to uphold safety standards, which set the conditions for the accident.
Miners are fighting for their health and safety well into retirement. A group traveled to Washington and met with Congress this month to encourage passage of the Miners Protection Act, which would secure healthcare funds for coal workers. Though the bill has support from 26 Senators across state and party lines — including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D), who introduced the bill — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has introduced alternative legislation that calls for short-term funding and a repeal of safeguards that he said are hampering the industry.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, Trump flanked himself with miners while signing a broad-ranging energy and environment order that, among other things, lifted a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands and directed the EPA to rework the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule to help transition the country to cleaner electricity sources. “You know what this says?” Trump asked a miner at the event. “This says you are going back to work.”
But coal mining, as Price’s and countless other examples show, is dangerous work. Rolling back regulations in order to extend the decline of the industry — if it’s even effective — will only put more people at risk.
West Virginians aren’t convinced the new rules will even bring back the coal industry. But they are calling on Trump to come to the aid of the state that helped elect him in other ways.
“Trump can’t bring coal mining back to what it used to be,” said Price. “It’ll never be like it was. But he can make sure coal miners are protected by keeping safety regulations in place and fulfilling his promises to retirees. I’m sure President Trump will do this for West Virginians, for the people that favored him in this election.”
Congress threatens health care for aging and sick miners, while Trump touts the coal industry’s… was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
By Jeremy Deaton
Chicago has seen nary a snowflake since before Christmas — a record in a city that averages 40 inches of snow in the winter. In Washington, D.C., the famous cherry blossoms are set to bloom two weeks ahead of schedule, marking the end of an uncommonly warm winter and the early arrival of spring.
In normally cold regions, the record-setting heat— and the opportunity to wear shorts and drink iced tea in February—might seem like a blessing. But for the ecosystems we depend upon, the shortened winter threatens turmoil.
In nature, timing is everything. In a spring, flowers lend their nectar to bees, and bees pollinate those flowers. When flowers bloom too soon, however, they risk losing their petals and nectar before bees show up. Fewer bees mean less pollination, and so forth.
But if both species resurface at the onset of spring, why would they fall out of sync? The answer is that they respond to different cues. Some plants, like Washington’s cherry trees, bloom after experiencing several warms days in a row. Others respond to sunlight, blossoming only after days grow longer. Pollinators — such as birds, bees, bats, and butterflies—have evolved to take advantage of these subtle, seasonal cues.
In a normal year, these cues more or less line up as anticipated, leading the birds and the bees to discharge their vernal duties at roughly the appropriate time. But climate change is blurring the line between winter and spring — a phenomenon scientists call season creep — and many species of both flora and fauna are struggling to adapt.
Even when plants and pollinators are in sync, season creep can thwart the growth of vegetation. Seeds that take hold during a balmy stretch in February may perish in a cold snap come March. Full-grown plants sprout leaves, flowers or fruit that wilt when chilly weather returns. Experts describe a warm winter spell that spurs flora and fauna to reemerge ahead of schedule as a false spring.
A false spring can also be extremely costly to farmers and, by extension, consumers. In 2012, an especially warm winter followed by freezing temperatures ravaged fruit trees in Michigan, costing growers half a billion dollars. The problem is likely to get worse in the years to come. A 2015 study found that climate change will produce more false springs in the Midwest and elsewhere, imperiling fruit crops.
Even an the absence of a late-season frost, a warm winter can wreak havoc on agriculture. Sugar maples, for example, only produce sap in cold weather. Rising temperatures have stunted syrup production.
Warmer winters do, however, tend to make people pay closer attention to the overall trend of anthropogenic climate change. A Gallup poll conducted at the end of last winter — the warmest on record in the United States — showed an increase in the number of Americans who believed the effects of climate change had already begun.
Granted, not everyone is equally persuaded by personal experience. Research suggests that those who are already concerned about climate change are more likely to perceive exceptionally warm weather as a deviation from the norm.
This year’s unusually mild winter has prompted many Americans to consider the implications of climate change. Chicago meteorologist Tom Skilling attributed the city’s snowless winter to global warming. In nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, civic leaders alarmed by the unusually warm weather are working on a climate action plan. Anne Hunt, the city’s environmental policy director, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “It’s not supposed to be 65 degrees in February, or rain on Christmas.”
By contrast, the mild winter has done little to sway federal policymakers. From the Oval Office, President Trump has proposed gutting federal climate programs and debated pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
From the Lincoln Bedroom, he can see the cherry blossoms just beginning to emerge.
That’s because right now, in much of the United States, wind and solar are the cheapest form of power available, according to a new report from investment bank Lazard.
Analysts found that new solar or wind installations are cheaper than a new coal-fired power installation just about everywhere — even without subsidies — while the cost of renewables continues to fall rapidly.
Since just last year, the cost of utility-scale solar has dropped 10 percent, and the cost of residential solar dropped a whopping 26 percent — and that is coming after years of price declines. The cost of offshore wind declined by 22 percent since last year, though it still remains more expensive than onshore wind.
The Lazard report is just the latest chapter in the success story of renewable energy. Since 2009, the cost of solar has been cut nearly in half. The cost of wind has fallen by two-thirds. The precipitous drop in price is reminiscent of shrinking costs for personal computers. Wind and, particularly solar, have yet to level off. New technologies and cheaper materials will continue to drive down costs in the years ahead.
The chart below shows the total cost per megawatt-hour of different forms of power. Lazard added up the lifetime cost of parts, fuel, labor, and other expenses and divided by the number of megawatt-hours generated. From this, they produced a range for the levelized cost of energy (LCOE).
This figure does not include energy subsidies nor the cost of environmental impacts. For instance, if a solar panel costs $100 without subsidies and $70 with subsidies, the LCOE would still be $100. On the other hand, if a gas turbine costs $100 without accounting for the social cost of carbon, and $130 after accounting for the social cost of carbon, then the LCOE stays at $100.
(Researchers use different methods to calculate levelized cost. Trump’s transition team, for example, has hinted that it wants to change the way the federal Energy Information Administration calculates the levelized cost of renewables to make wind and solar appear more expensive.)
By and large, wind and solar are going up in locales with an abundance of wind and sunshine. Wind is most cost-effective in the windswept states in the middle of the country — such as Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Solar is most cost-effective in the sun-drenched Southwest — states like Nevada, Arizona, and California. Natural gas is still the cheapest option in much of the rest of the country — but keep in mind that the levelized cost does not account for the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels.
A new tool from the Energy Institute of the University of Texas shows the cheapest kind of new power plant by county, accounting for land available to deploy a particular technology. (For instance, the site notes, “it is not likely that one could build a power plant in a national park.”) The map below shows which technologies are most cost-effective without subsidies.
It’s clear why solar, wind, and natural gas are taking over the country. In light of these trends, some may be asking why we need subsidies at all.
Given the pace of technological progress, it would be fair to ponder whether, left to its own devices, the market would take care of climate change. Low-emissions natural gas is rapidly displacing coal. Solar, wind and battery storage are getting cheaper every day. The power grid is decarbonizing itself, right?
The problem is that averting dangerous climate change demands the rapid transformation of our energy system. That means we can’t just build new, low-carbon power plants at the rate of replacement. We also have to shutter existing carbon-intensive power plants. Thus, while natural gas may offer an attractive way to curb emissions in the short-term, a gas-fired plant built today may need to be closed before the end of its operating life if we are to meet our emissions goals.
One remedy is to account for the cost of climate change — make polluters pay for polluting, or offer tax breaks for renewables. These policies can help expedite the transition to clean energy by making zero-carbon power more cost-competitive.
The chart below shows how federal tax credits impact the cost of renewables. The effect is modest, but it is important in helping wind and solar compete with coal and gas in much of the United States. Fossil fuels, it should be said, have benefitted from decades of federal support.
If you applied a modest fee to carbon pollution — rather than a tax credit for clean energy — that would discourage the construction of new coal- and gas-fired power plants. Wind, solar and nuclear would become the cheapest kind of new power plant across a broader swath of the country, as shown in the map below.
The cost of power, of course, is only half the battle. There is also the matter of intermittency — the fact that wind and solar only generate power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
One key finding from the Lazard report is that renewables can’t meet the “baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future.” For that, grids must continue to turn to other power structures. There are a couple of tools to deal with this, and we’ll likely need to use each. These include, but are not limited to:
Improved infrastructure (a possibility) and cheaper energy storage (an inevitability) will make wind and solar more attractive. As costs continue to fall, expect another banner year for renewables in 2017.
There is no reason to ever build another coal plant in the United States was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.