King Coal: West Virginia’s Abusive Love


Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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54 Responses

  1. Avatar Maribou says:

    Thanks, Em, I feel a lot more informed than I did before reading this, and now I don’t have to delve into the morass to understand what is going on.Report

    • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

      West Virginia has my heart. To many here it is sacrilege to hate coal, but all I see is destruction and suffering and it is painful. Blankenship’s popularity, when he represents the worst of the industry, is inexplicable to me. I thought he’d be run out on a rail.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I am still wondering how anyone is going to bring coal back when it’s in decline through market forces. Regulation reduction might lower the price a little, but not enough to compete with other fuels or with other sources of coal.Report

    • Right now it isn’t other fuels that WV coal cant compete with, it is other coal. All the transportation issues @em-carpenter brings up as to why coal has remained a dominate force is now killing coal itself. The bituminous coal of southern WV is very high quality, (relatively) clean burning and excellent material, so the effort was worth it. But now its not, and the vast majority of the coal coming out of WV is going on boats to China, literally. But by far the biggest reason all those coal jobs are never coming back is the same reason as other industries: automation. There is no need for massive manpower and the associated cost and risk when a handful can operate machinery that once took legions of men to do. Deep mining, where it will exist at all, will soon be almost completely automated. The myth isn’t just in the coal jobs coming back, but the idea of unskilled labor making those types of wages is gone as well. Most miners of the future will be as much computer and drone operators as shoveling dirt.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Plus, if I’m not mistaken, the automation and transportation efficiencies are easier the achieve with Wyoming coal.Report

        • Vastly easier. Plus although we think of Wyoming as remote, transportation wise it really isn’t with well established rail system for transport which the bulk of coal is going to be shipped by, especially that product going to west coast ports for overseas (such as China).Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            The vast majority of Wyoming’s coal goes east (see freight route map here). The BNF and UP lines from the Powder River Basin going east across Nebraska carry the highest annual tonnage in the world.Report

        • Avatar lyle says:

          The big difference between Power River (Wy) coal and Eastern Coal is that the Wy coal is all surface mined, So all that will be left for the eastern coal is the Metalurgical coal (used in Blast Furnaces). as the western coal mines produce a ton of coal for 1/5 the labor hours of underground mining. Note that the railroad out of the Powder River has 4 tracks now. (to Orin Wy, where trains can take the UP or BNSF routes) , although even here business is down, with talk of closing the Colstrip Mt power plants (the north end of the Power River basin) and the associated mines.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      People are really stubborn. Often stupidly so. There seems to be a romantic notion in the United States of doing what your ancestors did for a living. Of course, “My grandfather was a doctor. My father was a doctor. Now I am a doctor” is a lot more sustainable than “My grandfather was a coal miner. My dad was a coal miner. I am a coal miner.”

      I suspect that a lot of people are not thinking rationally about this but more emotionally. The right-wing drift of West Virginia is also important. There is a “owning the libs” aspect too because Democrats generally dislike coal as being unennvironmental. See also rolling coal.

      A lot of the Blankenship appeal seems to be because he pisses off a lot of Democrats and/or establishment Republicans. See his “denial” when the good bourgeois factions of the United States were outraged when Blankenship called Elaine Chao a “Chinaperson.”

      A lot of stuff in the American political climate can be summed up as “The bourgeois and their discontents.” Democrats are the Bourgeois usually but so are some establishment Republicans like Ryan and McConnell.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Let’s not use the Blakenship brush to spread *too* broadly. His appeal, or rather, whatever votes he’s going to get, is going to be no more than one third of the half the electorate that isn’t still registered as Democrats. And that’s putting aside that probably fewer than half the people eligible to vote will bother voting.Report

        • The union miners supporting him are Democrats. For a lot of WV, especially the older generation, Democrat means something much different than the current national connotation. The old term “Blue Dogs” still very much applies there, and a lot of them voted Trump while still registered Democrat. Registration is misleading in a state in flux as WV is. As you correctly point out, turnout is key, especially in a three way race where breaking 30% might well win it for you.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            Registered Democrats literally cannot vote for him today.Report

            • Yes I’m aware of the closed primary, that was my point. When you see, like they were running last night, a union guy talking about supporting him understand that supporter is most likely a registered Dem and won’t be voting today. Same goes with the polling showing him doing well. It might be accurate, but those they are polling might well be excluded from to the primary vote. Trump got a lot of those guys but that doesn’t help Blankenship here. He needs R’s, and I get feeling R turnout is not going to be great today. Might be wrong we will see.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                Oh ok, I totally misunderstood you. I completely agree.

                (in the DC media market, I’ve only seen maybe three different Blakenship ads, though not the viral one. The first one from like a year ago was completely amateur, but not inherently weird, unless one knew Don’s backstory. The latest one that aired during the Sunday morning talk shows, i.e. MTP, seems professional and polished enough)Report

              • I could have articulated it better, just as much my fault. As far as ads go, Morriseys where he drops Seneca Rocks on Washington didn’t exactly cover him in glory, especially considering his address is technically included in the DC Metro Statistical area.

      • Avatar PD Shaw says:

        The coal miners in the Illinois basin I’ve met, like their job and like how much it pays (around $80,000 per year). They also train new hires; there was a full page ad in the local newspaper a few weeks ago seeking experienced and inexperienced miners. I don’t know the politics of WV, but in the Mississippi valley, miners are Democrats, the farmers are the Republicans, culturally and economically antagonistic to each other. The Democratic Party can align itself against mines, oil & gas, industry, and timber, but they will lose traditional blue regions.Report

        • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

          Politics in West Virginia…
          Historically WV was blue, dating back to the rise of the unions that I mentioned. In my lifetime I have seen it turn red, due in large part to leftward movement of Dems on social issues. Guns, abortion, gay rights… a lot of WV parts ways with the Democrat platform on these things. They are deal breakers. So some have made the formal party switch, while others stay registered D out of tradition, but vote R in the general. (Interesting note- Obama was the first Democrat to win the presidency without carrying West Virginia). But there are enough people in this state who rely on government programs (Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, social security), that it is a fine line for Republicans who advocate the reduction or elimination of these programs.
          For coal miners though, it is the EPA, MSHA and the like that are the catalyst for their Republican bent.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        “People are really stubborn. Often stupidly so. There seems to be a romantic notion in the United States of doing what your ancestors did for a living. Of course, “My grandfather was a doctor. My father was a doctor. Now I am a doctor” is a lot more sustainable than “My grandfather was a coal miner. My dad was a coal miner. I am a coal miner.””

        Tread lightly here. I’m sure there was a time that coal mining seemed as sustainable and rational as doctoring does now.

        Just be sure to ignore all the advancements in robotic surgery and the like.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      I am still wondering how anyone is going to bring coal back when it’s in decline through market forces. Regulation reduction might lower the price a little, but not enough to compete with other fuels or with other sources of coal.

      No, increased regulation. First there was Rick Perry’s proposal to give large (two-three cents per kWh as I recall) cash incentives to generators who could store six weeks worth of fuel on site. That is, coal and nuclear. FERC, which is ferociously pro-market, told DOE to get off their playground. Then FirstEnergy filed a formal request for DOE to use Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to declare a state of emergency for system operator PJM and require PJM to reserve a minimum market share for both coal and nuclear. No response from Perry yet. Finally, the administration is reportedly looking at invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950 to require the use of coal- and nuclear-fired electricity. (Both 202(c) and the DPA were used during the California electricity crisis of 2000-01.)Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        If the only way to survive is protective regulatory capture…Report

      • Avatar lyle says:

        Forbes just had an article saying that more retirements of coal plants are likley than were predicted a year ago. This is because the cost cuts in Gas, Solar and Wind in conjunction with the increasing cost of coal generated electricity. It should be noted that a combined cycle gas plant ramps up far faster than a coal plant so it is a nice fit with the renewables, able generate when the renewables are not available. It will not be long now that if you add the fixed cost of a gas plant (about 50% of the total cost of the electricity, the other 50% is fuel and maintenance due to use) to the cost of wind or solar it still beats the cost of a coal plant.
        Plus of course a lot of the coal plants are beginning to get old, and given the economics it is not clear that needed upgrades can even be justified.Report

  3. Avatar J_A says:

    I’ve been involved in coal power projects for many years (*) but none in the USA. And I have never seen heard of such negative safety statistics related to coal production in recent years (decades?) in either Europe, Australia, or Latin America.

    Does anyone have reliable international safety statistics to see how the USA compares?

    What we see in WV seems to me a combination of regulatory capture and Calvinistic disdain for the plight of the (obviously predestinated to eternal damnation) Other.

    (*) And, for the record, I believe coal is a valuable primary energy source, whose environmental negatives can be mitigated.Report

    • Blankenships crack about “Mitch’s China Family” has a lot of history and some long running fueds. Elain Choa (from Taiwan, but I doubt Don bothered to note the difference), Mitch’s wife, was W. Bush’s labor Secretary in the ’00s. There is way to much there for a comment post, but basically now-Senator Joe Manchin (who Blankenship was once friends with now hates) was the Governor of WV at that time and started cracking down on safety at the state level. Depending on whose version you believe Choa’s Labor department started trying to clear a huge backlog of safety issues with the mines, oversaw by MSHA. MSHA was resistant for years to changing their methods, until they were finally forced to do so. So of course operators like Massey, run by Blankenship, starts crying foul when the hard edges return to regulation that had been lax for years with a combination of corruption and incompetence. So generally speaking, Labor Dept or the State would issue violations, and Blankenship was running to MSHA and uses their not-up-to-date rules to circumvent the crackdown in court. That was the environment that, at least in WV, Sago and Upper Big Branch disasters happened in.Report

  4. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I grew up in the other Virginia and went to college with a good number of West Virginians. Most of them went elsewhere after school, but it’s such a beautiful state that I’ve often thought about retiring there one day. The way you describe coal makes me think of steel, which many people in my city believe will come back strong one day.Report

    • Steel is an excellent parallel. My family has a long history of working both so it is a comparison I use frequently myself. When people, and I do too sometimes, think steel mills they are still thinking of open furnaces and hellscape scenes. Thats still partially true for the blast furnaces, but the reality is the new steel processes and production facilities are more like surgery wards than the mills of old; super hi-tech, leaned out, and almost entirely automated. This article is excellent in describing the new breed of production but its the photo’s that really strike you. A dozen techs and a few computer programers run the place. Blast furnaces are still dirty, labor intensive work but even that is starting to be automated. What Youngstown Sheet and Tube needed 27K workers in the 50’s to do only takes a couple hundred now, and those jobs are highly specialized. The age of mass general labor in steel and coal is over. Thus, no, those jobs, at that level, are never coming back.Report

      • Avatar lyle says:

        In fact steel jobs will never come back even if China stops making steel completly. It now takes 1/5 the number of worker hours to make a ton of steel than it did in the 1960s.. Big changes are moving from open hearth furnaces which took 12 hours to make a batch of steel to basic oxygen furnaces and electric furnaces which take no more than 45 mins. Second is continuous casting which eliminated the ingot and the soaking pit, saving a days time in production. In addition of course the dynamic part of the us steel industry is the mini mills such as Nucor and Steel Dynamics (founded by Nucor Alumni) Today 66% of steel in the us is made of recycled steel which is why blast furnaces are being shut down. What this does suggest in the US case we have come close to reaching a maximum in iron and steel demand, and now can take obsolete products including building frames and recycle them for a good energy and co2 savings.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    In my new position, I’m handling a variety of employment claims – some pre-litigation, some before the EEOC, some in court – and not quite half of the wrongful termination cases are coal miners and coal miner support workers (e.g., electricians, drivers) from West Virginia.

    Just consider what that means if the insurers I’m working for are representative of the nation as a whole.

    Also another interesting peculiarity to litigation here: West Virginia’s judiciary, to my knowledge, has no intermediate court of appeals. A case goes to trial, someone gets a judgment, and from there the appeal is directly to the WV Supreme Court and unless there’s a national federal issue, that’s the end of it.Report

    • Correct, West Virginia is one of only nine jurisdictions with a single appellate court. With Supreme Court seats an elected “non-partisan” 12-year term of office in WV, as you can imagine WVSCA has vast writ powers and original jurisdiction in proceedings. This has long been a point of contention. Matter of fact, recently the Supreme Court has been dealing with a spending and appropriation scandal that has some calling for change.Report

  6. Avatar Em Carpenter says:

    Correct, no intermediate appeals court. The legislature tries annually but it gets voted down or never comes out of committee.Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I’m amazed John Cole hasn’t weighed in on this.Report

  8. Avatar George Turner says:

    Blankenship came in third, by the way.Report

  9. Avatar Em Carpenter says:

    Yes, I may have heard that somewhere.

    He still got 20% of the vote in a three-way contest, so the point I was trying to make stands.

    The part that is most astounding is that he won by a landslide in Mingo County, ground zero for the coal wars and the site of the Matewan massacre.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      Blakenship got 520 votes in Mingo county. The hippie got 1,418 votes*, and the Manchin got 1,846 votes.

      (the second best percentage total of any county in the state; she only did better in the county where Morgantown is located)Report

      • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

        He got 520, but his opponents got less than 300 each.
        (Closed primary, and most are still registered Democrats.)Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          Right that’s my point. It’s like that Nazi winning the Republican nomination for Congress in that Chicagoland district. Doesn’t mean that now people there like Illinois Nazis.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            Mingo is also the (ideological, if perhaps not literal) epicenter of the dream of the Dems taking the West Va 3rd.Report

  10. Avatar lyle says:

    Apparently when offered retraining a number of coal miners in Wv contend that coal will come back and then don’t need to be retrained. Note that Wv potentially has large coal bed methane reserves also, plus a good chunk of the Marcellus gas trend. But gas production does require a lot fewer workers. Consider that the old images of folks wrestling drill pipe are no obsolete it is now done with a joy stick on newer rigs. You might need 15 -20 folks on a drilling rig for a couple of months and a few more for a few days of fracking, then at most 1 person per well for operations.Report

    • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

      You’re right about miners not wanting retrained. They cling to the tradition and they have immense pride in their “honest hard work”.
      That’s why Hillary’s famous line “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of work…” was her death knell here, even though in context she was proposing programs to help retrain and reemploy them.
      To be fair, if someone told me that no one needs lawyers anymore so I’m going to have to find another profession, I can imagine I would likewise take umbrage.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        To be fair, if someone told me that no one needs lawyers anymore so I’m going to have to find another profession, I can imagine I would likewise take umbrage.

        In that vein, it’s always fun to watch how much nuance and acknowledgment of different dynamics suddenly materializes among the pro-unskilled immigration crowd suddenly materializes when H1-B visas start being discussed.

        (Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Balloon Juice.)Report

      • I suspect in addition to clinging to tradition and pride, it’s also that promoting “retraining” might seem rather flip, even if retraining the only good option on the table. The promise of retraining is vague, and probably evokes the following thoughts:

        1. Some money will be set aside sometime
        2. The money may be in the form of grants, but perhaps also in the form of low-interest loans.
        3. The money may or may not be enough to live off of (in addition to paying for the retraining).
        4. There may be onerous documentation requirements to access the training. Perhaps one has to document they actually were displaced by structural economic forces. What type of documentation will be required? How easy is it to get? How expeditiously is the paperwork processed?
        5. The retrained person would have to struggle to find a new position, which they’ll assume at the bottom of the employment ladder.

        I don’t know if the above accurately reflects how such retraining programs work and I don’t know if the above accurately reflects the thought-process people have when they decline retraining. But I wouldn’t blame someone for citing the above as reasons for being ambivalent.

        Maybe there’s no other real solution, except perhaps more generous social provisions or help with relocating (and that brings a bunch of other concerns). Maybe retraining (with help for relocation) is all that we can expect in this political climate or in most political climates.

        ETA: I don’t wish to imply I think you’re saying they’re “only” clinging to tradition, etc. You explicitly recognize that it’s normal to take umbrage at being told to change one’s career.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      West Virginia stands eighth among states for NG production. Nos. four through nine are all about the same size, at least compared to the top three and those at 10 and beyond. They’re fifth in NG drilling rigs operating. Those are quite respectable numbers, especially given the difficulties the terrain presents for building gathering pipeline systems. Certainly more difficult than the plains of West Texas or NE Colorado. It seems to me likely that WV’s NG industry is already about as big as it’s likely to get.Report

      • I’m working on a piece on the Mountain Valley pipeline in WV right now. When I went to visit family this past weekend the presence is astounding, pipe pre-staged everywhere and thousands of workers in temporary campgrounds stretching across 6 counties. So much pipe is on the ground the only thing I can compare it to is seeing Basra as they rebuilt the port facilities. But all that influx, while good for the consumer economy, is temporary, and after the 18mth-2 years of construction those folks will move on with nothing residual in the way of development. So I think you point about this being the apex of NG in WV is probably valid barring some technological breakthrough/deposit finding.Report

  11. Anytime I think of the coal industry, I think of Claire Berlinski’s Thatcher biography. She visited a lot of coal towns that were ruined when Thatcher quit propping up a dying industry. And her response was “good riddance”. It’s a filthy industry that produces one of the dirtiest fuels in existence and takes young men underground to break them.

    The failure (in the UK and here) is that we didn’t do anything to help those towns once coal started dying. We still aren’t.Report

    • Avatar J_A says:

      The failure (in the UK and here) is that we didn’t do anything to help those towns once coal started dying. We still aren’t.

      That is and isn’t true – It is true we are not helping.

      But, like in AA, the first step in helping coal communities, steel communities, Big Auto communities(*) is for them to accept that the market and technology has changed, and that their old life is over. Only then can we try to find alternatives.

      One of my preferred ones is to give displaced miners above a certain age (for instance, 45 yo) access to Social Security (akin to Disability) so they can retire but still remain in their communities. That way we can have a couple of decades for the community to change -or die- at a natural pace.

      The only thing I cannot do is bring the jobs back – Those jobs do not exist any more. They don’t exist here, they don’t exist in Mexico, they don’t exist in China. Whoever talks about the old jobs is lying. We need to get the communities to accept dropping the old jobs meme. Only then help might actually, you know, help.

      (*) Big Auto communities seem to have accepted the change, but its been more than 30 years since places like Flint started to collapse. Roger and Me came out in 1989Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        One of my preferred ones is to give displaced miners above a certain age (for instance, 45 yo) access to Social Security (akin to Disability) so they can retire but still remain in their communities.

        Also Medicare and/or Medicaid, and plan on pumping a steady flow of money in to keep clinics and small hospitals open. The Great Plains have been in slow but steady decline since the 1930s. Trying to keep a functioning medical care system going there is a challenge.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      That’s a good way of looking at it, the trouble is that there’s probably nothing that can be done to help coal mining towns. In a lot of cases, the only reason there was a town there in the first place was the coal, and while new job are created every day, most growth industries rely heavily on agglomeration effects – knowledge jobs often depend on having a large number of people living near each other to work effectively.

      Urbanisation is one of the the most robust demographic trends in human history, and unfortunately I don’t see a viable future for a lot of small towns and rural settlements. At some point, the issue is going to be finding a way to let towns die while helping the remaining residents to transition into bigger cities.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        The problem with the bigger cities like SF is that people don’t want to raise kids around all the needles, drugs, poop, panhandlers, illegals, burglars, and homeless people, and the cost of living and real estate make such places virtually unaffordable to anyone not making six figures.Report

        • Avatar J_A says:

          The problem with the bigger cities like SF….

          The problem about saying The problem with the bigger cities like SF is that San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, and probably one or two more are outliers with respect to what cities look like in the USA:

          Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Mobile, Denver, Minneapolis, Raleigh, Miami, Indianapolis, Cincinatti, Las Vegas, Anchorage, and Miriam otheres do not look anything like SF or NYC, while they look pretty similar between them. Talking about SF is talking about a straw man. So let’s find out why people wouldn’t want to raise children in Houston. There’s barely any used needles or poop from homeless people or drug addicts in the streets of Houston. So what’s the problem now?Report

          • Avatar George Turner says:

            Catastrophic flooding and air pollution from all the refineries, for a start.Report

            • Avatar J_A says:

              And yet the school in my street is full of kids. I pity them. If they don’t drown, they’ll die poisoned.

              If only their parents had run away in time….Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          People were pouring into London during the period that living conditions were literally Dickensian – if that’s where the work is, that’s where people will go.Report

          • Avatar lyle says:

            Yes the jobs were there but London at the time would have lost population if there were no migration from the rural areas. Because the death rate was so high due to water pollution problems etc.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          Given the prescription drug problem in ruralalia, I wonder if city people would want such folks living among them. NIMBYism and all that.Report

        • Avatar Morat20 says:

          The problem with the bigger cities like SF is that people don’t want to raise kids around all the needles, drugs, poop, panhandlers, illegals, burglars, and homeless people, and the cost of living and real estate make such places virtually unaffordable to anyone not making six figures.

          So…nobody wants to live there, which drives real estate prices through the roof? That’s a pretty fascinating supply/demand curve there.Report