Hundreds of coal industry workers and supporters gathered Tuesday in front of the U.S. Capitol as a parade of coal-state lawmakers assailed the Obama administration as waging a “war on coal” with new environmental rules.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed standards aimed at curbing carbon-dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming, according to most climate scientists. However, the rules would make it nearly impossible to build new coal-fired power plants without expensive and unproven technology to capture carbon dioxide and pump it underground.
On Tuesday, miners from several coal-producing states, some wearing yellow hard hats and carrying signs that said “Impeach Obama,” cheered as lawmakers of both parties and other speakers criticized the administration.
“I blame one man,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told the crowd. “President Barack Obama.”
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Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., blasted “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats” at the EPA. He challenged Obama to come to eastern Kentucky, where more than 6,000 coal-related jobs have vanished in the past two years. Many counties in the region have an unemployment rate that’s higher than the national and state average.
“It’s not a recession,” said Paul, who’s a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. “It’s a depression.”
At a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee hearing after the rally, witnesses described coal-dependent communities in crisis.
Eastern Kentucky was the birthplace nearly 50 years ago of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the social programs it created helped reduce the region’s distress. But plummeting coal employment threatens to erase that progress.
Albey Brock, the top elected official of Bell County in southeast Kentucky, told the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that eastern Kentucky depended on coal more than Detroit depended on the auto industry. But the county of 28,000 has a 14 percent jobless rate, compared with 8 percent statewide and 7 percent nationwide.
“I cannot imagine the EPA calculated the human impact of their decisions,” Brock told lawmakers.
A bill co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would ease the new EPA rules.
“This bipartisan, bicameral solution will prevent unworkable regulations that threaten to limit America’s power portfolio and make energy more expensive,” Whitfield said in a statement.
However, coal isn’t threatened just by EPA regulations. The deepest recession since the Great Depression reduced demand for electricity, and the market hasn’t experienced a strong recovery.
An abundance of cheaper natural gas unlocked by hydraulic fracturing has made coal less attractive to domestic utilities. Coal generates less than 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, down from half a decade ago. Natural gas, meanwhile, has increased its share from 20 percent to about 30 percent.
Renewables such as wind and solar have steadily increased their share of the energy market, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“This isn’t something the government did,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “This is something the market dictated.”
More than a century of mining coal in Central Appalachia has depleted what’s economically recoverable, according to Jason Bailey, the research and policy director of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky. He said the decline had started well before the recession, the rise of natural gas or the Obama EPA’s focus on carbon emissions.
“It’s not going to come back,” he said. “There’s beginning to be some acceptance of that.”
On Monday, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican whose district spans much of the struggling eastern Kentucky coalfield, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, announced a December economic summit to discuss ideas to wean the region off coal.
It’s common for multiple generations of Appalachian families to have worked in coal mines. Michael Warrix, of Prestonsburg, Ky., said his father had spent 38 years in the mines and was still working.
“He can’t leave it,” said Warrix, who attended Tuesday’s rally. “There’s no place to go.”
But Warrix can’t find steady work in the mines. He said he was taking community college classes with the goal of transferring to the University of Kentucky’s engineering school.
Bailey said policy makers in Kentucky and Washington were failing to help the region overcome the long-term decline of its mainstay industry with job training and education.
“That responsibility has been ignored,” he said. “It should be part of energy policy.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story named the wrong House of Representatives subcommittee where the hearing took place. It was at the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.