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Coal barge rides up the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh
The conflict over converting Pennsylvania and the rest of the country from dependence on fossil fuels has always been one for jobs. There are still over 1 million jobs in the fossil fuel industry, and although jobs in coal have declined for years, tens of thousands are still employed in mines and coal-fired power plants. Questions about what will happen to coal and fossil fuel jobs if the country is primarily powered by clean energy have made fossil fuel workers skeptical of the transition to renewable energies.
But this week a union made up of coal workers bucked the trend, backing President Joe Biden’s plan to turn the country away from fossil fuels, with the caveat that it called for a robust transition strategy for its workers. According to NBC News, United Mine Workers of America is calling on US Congress to fund renewable energy jobs for miners displaced by the transition.
“I think we have to offer these people a future, a future for anyone who loses their job due to a transition in this country, regardless of whether it is coal, oil, gas or any other industry,” said UMWA- President Cecil Roberts to Al Jazeera on April 19.
Despite promises made by former President Donald Trump, coal jobs in Pennsylvania and Appalachia have been declining for years. Coal mining jobs fell by about 6,400 between 2017 and 2020, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of these coal losses have occurred in southwest Pennsylvania. And the pandemic made things worse, as American coal production declined 25% in 2020 from 2019.
Senator Bob Casey (D-Scranton) is a well-known UMWA ally and has performed better than the average Democrat in coal-intensive areas like Greene County. He told Pittsburgh City Paper that he was determined to work with UMWA to invest in clean energy.
“United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) recognize that investing in clean energy will create jobs and increase workers’ incomes,” Casey said in a statement. “I am determined to work with UMWA to get America’s employment plan passed and ensure workers are protected.”
The UMWA announcement comes as Congress is considering a $ 2 trillion infrastructure proposal that Biden tabled during a recent visit to Pittsburgh. The proposal puts a lot of emphasis on childcare, transportation, roads and bridges, and promoting clean energy such as solar and wind power.
While the UMWA agrees to advance clean energy initiatives when there is space to help its members find work, it also seeks other requests that environmentalists may not support. This includes investing in carbon capture, a process the union believes will make coal cleaner and help keep the industry going. However, carbon capture still has an environmental impact and has been subject to some scrutiny.
In both cases, unions and fossil fuel environmentalists have often been at odds and are largely still in southwestern Pennsylvania, but UMWA support could be a new starting point.