Anyone expecting government action to solve all problems faced by coal miners and the coal industry are sure to be disappointed.
Sure, there may be adjustments through the political process and court action, but a lower-carbon energy future is a virtual certainty.
Coal faces other challenges, including competition from low-price natural gas. In many places, coal that can be more-easily mined has been depleted. Labor-saving technology cost some coal jobs.
That’s not to say, however, that the plight facing miners should be ignored.
A case in point is the Miners Protection Act (MPA), a bipartisan compromise championed by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, that passed the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday by an 18-8 vote.
It’s legislation that would ensure that the federal government and coal operators honor pension and health benefits agreements to retired miners and their families. A House of Representative version of the bill, Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2015, is stalled in the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, according to Congress.gov.
“Even though it is long overdue, the Miners Protection Act’s passage through the Senate Finance Committee brings us one step closer to fulfilling the commitment that we made to our miners more than 70 years ago,” Manchin said.
He said if the legislation is not passed into law, 16,000 miners will lose their health care at the end of this year. Another 3,500 miners will lose their health care in March 2017 and 3,500 miners a few months later.
“We need to get the job done,” he said.
Capito said she is committed to working with colleagues to secure additional support for the bill to ensure a Senate floor vote before the end of the 114th Congress.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) is pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to make sure the legislation gets put up for a vote before the end of the year.
“3,200 Kentuckians will lose health care benefits, and pensions for 9,600 people will be in danger,” the UMW told the Kentucky-based Courier Journal.
“Sen. McConnell is from a coal state, and a lot of affected miners are Kentuckians,” Capito said.
The act would make certain that retirees who lost health care benefits after the bankruptcy or insolvency of an employer are eligible for the benefits. It would transfer funds yearly from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund until the benefit programs are financially sound.
Critics contend the the Abandoned Mine Land Fund will not cover the entire act’s cost.
In 1946, at the direction of President Harry Truman, the secretary of interior signed an agreement with the UMW president, which later became the 1974 Pension Plan. This agreement constituted a federal guarantee of the health and retirement benefits of coal miners and created a multi-employer health and retirement system for coal miners and dependents.
The Miners Protection Act is a proposal to protect more than 100,000 miners, retirees and widows. The problem being addressed is made worse by the fact that 60 percent of the pension recipients worked for companies that are no longer operating, according to Manchin.
In 1984, there were more than 2,800 coal companies contributing to the 1974 Pension Plan. Today, most of the contributions come from two non-bankrupt coal companies, according to comments by Robert Murray, chairman of the Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association, published by The Wall Street Journal.
“The MPA would largely redirect funds, to which coal companies have already contributed and continue to do so, from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund (AML) to the 1974 Pension Fund,” Murray wrote. “This AML fund fee is paid by coal companies, not by the general public, and is best used protecting the pensions and livelihoods of those coal miners; sufficient funds are available to perform any needed reclamation work.”
The federal government made a commitment more than 70 years ago that remains in effect today.
“These are hardworking people who come from communities where broken promises, bad policies and bankruptcies have hit like one wrecking ball after another for decades,” said Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
“These miners put in backbreaking work in one of the toughest jobs out there, and it is by absolutely no fault of their own that the industry they worked in has fallen on hard times. Yet the reality is, tens of thousands of mine workers and their widows and families are headed toward a cliff at the end of this year. Their health benefits are set to expire in just a few months. Their pension benefits will go soon after that.”
That’s something they — and the nation — simply can’t afford.