The human costs of Obama’s war on coal

Tom Borelli Senior Fellow, FreedomWorks
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The Patriot Coal bankruptcy hearing this week in St. Louis highlights the immense human and economic costs of the war on coal — the progressive campaign to bankrupt the coal industry. The outcome of the bankruptcy proceedings will have a huge impact on the remaining coal companies, workers and retirees.

Patriot Coal is seeking to avoid paying an estimated $2.2 billion in medical and pension benefits to its retired union workers. If it succeeds, its financial liability will be passed on to other coal companies as part of collective bargaining agreements with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which has multi-employer pension and health plans for retirees. These benefit costs could threaten the viability of the remaining coal companies, which are already under financial pressure from President Obama’s regulatory onslaught.

The casualties of the war on coal are piling up. Coal miner layoffs, mine closings, coal-fired power plant closings, crashing stock prices and the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal are the latest tangible signs of coal’s demise.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg can’t hide his excitement at the thought of exterminating the industry. At a Department of Energy-sponsored event in February, Bloomberg bragged, “Even though the coal industry doesn’t totally know it yet or is ready to admit it, its day is done. … Here in the U.S., I’m happy to say, the king is dead. Coal is a dead man walking.”

While Bloomberg feels the thrill of victory, thousands of hard-working coal miner families are feeling the agony of defeat.

With emotions running high, outraged union workers are taking to the streets. Union leaders, liberal Democrats and former green jobs czar Van Jones are blaming the coal companies in an effort to distract attention from the costs of progressive policies.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of union anger is on Patriot Coal and not the cause of its bankruptcy in the first place. A spokesperson for UMWA recently accused Patriot of trying “to eliminate health care benefits for 10,700 retired miners, plus 5,800 spouses and widows. The remainder of the proposed cuts — about 6,500 — involves active workers and their dependents.” But Patriot Coal’s insolvency is a result of the attack on coal led by progressives like President Obama, Bloomberg and radical environmental activists.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would allow money to be transferred from the industry-supported Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, which is used to restore land damaged by past mining, to union pensions.

Rockefeller’s legislation could prevent the domino effect of additional bankruptcies from solvent companies being forced to take on the burden of Patriot Coal’s benefit plans. However, a longer-term and more effective strategy would be for Rockefeller to rally fellow Democrats to stop Obama’s war on coal. The UMWA pension is underfunded and more coal layoffs will only exacerbate the problem.

During his State of the Union address in February, President Obama renewed his commitment to pursue his environmental agenda through legislation and executive branch actions. Make no mistake: He has the power to bankrupt the coal industry.

Coal-state Democrats — and all Americans — need to rally against the war on coal. It’s now or never.

Today the brunt of the war on coal’s costs are being felt by coal-industry workers. But over time, many Americans — especially those on fixed incomes or in lower-income brackets — will feel the pain of Obama’s promise to make electricity prices “skyrocket.”

Tom Borelli, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with FreedomWorks, a grassroots service center to a community of over 4 million activists who believe in individual liberty and constitutionally limited government.