LEXINGTON, Ky. — Coal country needs jobs. The head of the country’s largest coal miners’ union has expressed his support for the parts of the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure package that creates them.

What You Need To Know

  • More than half of the country's coal jobs have disappeared since 2011

  • American Jobs Plan shows shift toward renewable energy

  • Union head says jobs in green sector could help struggling communities

  • Carbon sequestration could become a large sector of coal industry

“Anybody who would not accept jobs where jobs are desperately needed is making a horrendous mistake,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, the country's largest mineworkers union, told CNN Business. “We're for infrastructure. We're for jobs. We're for moving manufacturing into coalfields. We'll work with the president on that."

Officially named the American Jobs Plan, the package also calls for rebuilding and repairing bridges, roads, ports and airports, increasing the demand for steel, which uses coal in the tempering process.

The union’s support of the infrastructure package is not broad, however, as the plan calls for a shift away from coal to greener energy. Nearly half of the coal jobs in America have disappeared since 2011, which has dealt a severe blow to Kentucky’s coal counties, many of which were already economically distressed. Much of the job losses resulted from natural gas being an abundant and less expensive alternative to coal. The industry now faces battling an increase in solar, wind and other types of renewable energy.

Tim Miller is the representative for the UMWA’s District 12 office in Madisonville, Kentucky, the seat of Hopkins County, the third-largest coal-producing county in the commonwealth. 

“The main thing we support is trying to preserve all the coal jobs we can preserve in Kentucky. That’s our biggest goal,” Miller said. “We support bringing new jobs and coalfields, good union jobs, good-paying jobs. Our main thing is making sure the families and communities in the coalfield areas aren’t disrupted.” 

Staving off disruption in coal communities and the UMWA’s support of portions of the American Jobs Plan results from recognizing the change in the fossil fuel industry and that the shift toward greener energy could result in more lost coal-related jobs. 

The UMWA released a document recently titled “Preserving Coal Country” that outlined its stance on an energy transition based on three principles: preserving existing coal jobs, creating new jobs and preserving coalfield families and communities. 

“We're talking about a transition here, and people shouldn't have to move 500 or 1,000 miles away to the big cities to find work,” Miller said. “If the coal industry is going to be destroyed, then we need to make sure there are good-paying jobs with benefits that come in to replace those lost jobs. When a plan includes that kind of money and job creation, there are parts we can support. But there are parts, like annihilating our industry, that we obviously don’t support.”

A bright spot for the coal industry in the American Jobs Plan is carbon capturing and storage, more commonly called carbon sequestration, which is a breakthrough technology that injects carbon dioxide deep underground before it can warm the planet.

Roberts said if carbon capture is used to protect the coal industry for as long as the marketplace will bear, then the overall goal of the jobs plan is good. The American Jobs Plan calls for establishing 10 pioneer facilities to demonstrate carbon capture retrofit, accelerating carbon capture deployment and making it easier to retrofit existing power plants.

“Carbon sequestration is something that has been talked about, and we need to build some coal-fired power plants here in the U.S. that are carbon-neutral. We need to be the leader,” Miller said. “Coal-fired power plants are being shut down all over the United States while everyone else is building coal-fired power plants. We need to be the leader in carbon sequestration and set the example — we can have some coal-fired power plants that use that technology.”

“Preserving Coal Country” suggests coal miners could benefit from the transition by using them to help build green technology. The document also touts expanding tax incentives to build out renewable supply chain manufacturing — such as making solar panels and wind turbines — in coalfield regions and calls for a hiring preference for dislocated miners and their families. The document calls for substantial funding to help coal workers, including national training programs for dislocated miners and support to replace their wages, healthcare and pensions.

"Change is coming, whether we seek it or not," according to the document. "Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer."

Biden's infrastructure plan also calls for hiring hundreds of thousands of workers to clean up abandoned coal mines and plug countless oil and gas wells. Roberts said the union "obviously" supports such efforts — though he stressed these jobs are temporary and not permanent.

Miller said coal workers in eastern and western Kentucky need good-paying long-term jobs. 

“These coal companies, for hundreds of years, have come in and mined the coal and then basically file bankruptcy, leave the communities and leave people struggling,” he said. “We’re all for jobs that are actually attainable for our coal miners and our members. If you’re going to build wind turbines and solar panels, why not build them in Pike County or Muhlenberg County? Bring those facilities to coalfields and don't build them overseas.”

Roberts told Ohio Valley ReSource the Biden administration’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 could bring an end to the remaining 44,000 or so coal-mining jobs. White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy pledged this past March to invest in coal communities as fossil fuel dependence is reduced.

“It’s one thing to want these things to happen, but it’s another thing for those things to materialize,” Roberts said. “People in Appalachia believe that there’ll be the second coming of the Lord before they see a ‘just transition.’”