WHEELING, W.Va. — Coal miners in the region are rallying against plans to use natural gas to generate electricity, as they fear the more than 2,000 coal jobs lost late last month — 754 of which came from the local area — could be just the beginning if such projects become common.
Members of Congress also are getting involved, as Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins, all R-W.Va., are urging Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to simply refuse to implement new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits on carbon emissions because they believe the so-called Clean Power Plan will eliminate up to an additional 80,000 energy jobs.
Currently, one natural gas plant is planned for the area in Moundsville, with two more being discussed in Brooke County and also one in Harrison County, W.Va. One of the main concerns for many coal miners and United Mine Workers of America officials are the tax breaks being offered to build these natural-gas powered electricity generating plants.
“Coal miners up and down this valley have been working hard and paying their taxes for years, and those taxes have helped build our schools, our roads and our bridges. It just isn’t fair when some local leaders want to use those tax dollars to give an out-of-state company a sweetheart deal that barely creates any full-time jobs and contributes to the loss of thousands of jobs for workers who are footing the bill,” said Bruce Whipkey, a retired coal miner who recently formed the Ohio Valley Jobs Alliance.
Whipkey and UMWA International President Cecil Roberts oppose the idea of using more natural gas for power generation, especially if the facilities receive payment in lieu of tax agreements, such as the one Marshall County officials approved last year for the planned $615 million Moundsville Power generator.
“We state right here and right now that the United Mine Workers of America opposes any tax breaks for these plants by any city, county or state because they represent permanent unemployment for coal miners,” Roberts said last week while addressing coal miners in Morgantown.
Late Friday, Murray Energy did announce it would restart operations at its Monongalia County Mine, which has been idle since March 31. The company said it would bring employees back to work “on an as-needed basis, with the hope of achieving full operating status by Aug. 31, 2015, but with fewer employees,” according to spokesman Gary Broadbent.
A payment in lieu of tax agreement, or PILOT, allows a company to avoid paying regular property tax and instead make an annual payment to a county. In Marshall County, the agreement between county commissioners and Buffalo, N.Y.-based Moundsville Power will allow the company to save about $9 million during the next 30 years.
Based on normal property tax levels, Moundsville Power would have paid about $39.29 million in taxes to lease its property for 30 years. However, the company will receive an annual discount of $10,000 for every one of the projected 30 full-time jobs it maintains at the facility, reducing the total payment to the county by $9 million in the next 30 years.
Although no local natural gas-fired power plants are online yet, Moundsville Power developer Andrew Dorn said his projected 549-megawatt generator along the Ohio River should enter its construction phase this fall. He said the plant may create $8 billion worth of economic activity over a projected 35-year span, while employing 30 full-time workers.
Dorn acknowledges, however, that production and usage of natural gas does not lead to similar levels of employment in comparison to coal. Once a natural gas well enters its production level, very few workers are needed. This is contrary to coal mining, which requires a steady supply of employees to keep working.
One of the main issues with continuing to use coal are the environmental regulations. Just last week, American Electric Power retired 5,535 megawatts of coal-fired power when it shuttered three plants, including the Kammer Plant in Marshall County. However, those plants closed simply because they could not meet the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
McKinley said implementation of the EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan – which could require power plants to slash carbon emissions by 30 percent – would lead to even more job loss in West Virginia. McKinley, Mooney and Jenkins sent a letter to Tomblin asking him to refrain from implementing the administration’s plan.
“The relentless pursuit of President Obama’s war on coal has virtually brought our coal industry to its knees. Our governor and state government should not comply with this attack on our coal industry, and I call on him to fight these destructive regulations,” McKinley said regarding his letter to Tomblin.
“The administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan is projected to kill 80,000 energy jobs and drive up home energy prices. Stopping this regulatory overreach is a top priority of mine, and I believe that the Obama administration lacks the legal authority to move forward with implementation,” Mooney said.
“The Obama administration’s power plant rule will decimate the market for West Virginia coal, cost West Virginia miners their jobs, and raise energy prices for West Virginia families,” Jenkins added.
Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said the governor and members of his administration are still evaluating the situation.
“There has been no decision made on how West Virginia will respond to the EPA Clean Power Plan mandate. Gov. Tomblin is committed to doing what is best for the residents of the Mountain State,” Stadelman said.
Meanwhile, WorkForce West Virginia Rapid Response meetings are scheduled for the coming days to inform displaced Murray Energy workers about grants and services, as well as information regarding unemployment.
“WorkForce West Virginia continues to make training for coal miners who have been laid off one of its top priorities. Through a Department of Labor National Emergency Grant, WorkForce is able to assist coal miners, their spouses and family members living in the home,” said Courtney Johnson, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Commerce, which oversees WorkForce. “The grant provides up to $5,000 per participant for occupational skills training in high-demand fields such as health-related occupations, commercial truck driving, welding, electrical engineering, HVAC repair, diesel technology, and chemical processing.”
Johnson said those participating in the program will also receive allowances for gasoline, food, child care and other expenses. More information on the grant can be found at www.workforcewv.org/minelayoff.
As for unemployment compensation, Johnson said those who work in West Virginia need to file their claims in the Mountain State, regardless of where they live. For those Murray Energy miners who worked in Ohio, they would file claims with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.