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Tina Casey headshot

UMWA Seeks Foothold for Coal in the Green Hydrogen Economy

By Tina Casey

Photo: A train transporting coal outside of Danville, West Virginia, a state that lost more than 40,000 coal mining jobs over the past decade. The UMWA recently issued a statement covering how coal miners, their families and communities can be part of the global energy transition. 

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) caused quite a stir last week when it issued a detailed statement in support of federal energy policies that create new clean energy jobs. The timing was perfect from a political perspective. The statement appeared aimed at encouraging Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin to support President Biden’s climate-friendly infrastructure plan, even though he represents the iconic coal-producing state of West Virginia.

To be clear, UMWA was equally insistent that federal policy must continue to support coal production. The two positions are not mutually exclusive, since coal has other uses aside from power generation. However, the spectacular rise of the green hydrogen industry may close off coal employment pathways that seemed safe just a few years ago.

UMWA: it’s all about the jobs

From the perspective of environmental advocates, the first part of the UMWA’s statement is a ringing endorsement of green jobs and the concept of a just transition. However, UMWA states up front that its mission has three parts. In deliberate order, first comes preserving UMWA jobs. Creating new jobs comes second. Preserving UMWA families and communities comes third, meaning that both the existing jobs, and the new jobs, need to provide for steady employment and a fair wage.

The U.S. coal industry has always been both a scourge and a benefit to local communities, especially in the coal states of Appalachia where the early years of the industry were steeped in anti-worker repression, violence and outright murder. Black lung disease and other health impacts continue to besiege coal workers and their communities up to the present day, along with the environmental impacts of strip mining and mountaintop removal. The long-term results have included high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes in coal-producing counties.

Accordingly, the UMWA statement draws a portrait of vulnerable communities that are spiraling downward as the number of coal jobs shrinks.

“The devastating impact on families and communities cannot be overstated. Divorce, drug addiction, imprisonment and suicide rates are all on the rise. Poverty levels are creeping back up in Northern and Central Appalachia, the heart of coal country. For every one direct coal job that has been lost, four other jobs have disappeared in these communities, meaning a quarter of a million jobs already have been lost,” UMWA writes.

New jobs for coal workers

The UMWA statement does foresee opportunities for good union jobs in clean power, abandoned mine reclamation projects and other non-coal areas. UMWA also makes the case for displaced coal workers to receive tuition and job training benefits, and it argues for replacing lost tax revenues from the coal industry with new funding streams for local schools and other civic infrastructure.

“This cannot be the sort of ‘just transition’ wishful thinking so common in the environmental community. There must be a set of specific, concrete actions that are fully-funded and long-term,” UMWA argues.

UMWA also points out that a funding model already exists.

“The easiest and most efficient way to fund this would be through a ‘wires’ charge on retail electric power sales, paid by utility customers, which would add about two-tenths of one cent per kilowatt hour to the average electric bill. This would amount to less than $3.00 per month for the average residential ratepayer,” UMWA explains, referring to a 2010 climate bill that would have provided subsidies for utilities to apply carbon capture technology to coal power plants. The bill passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate.

How to save coal: the green hydrogen conundrum

The enactment of a wires charge may not be as easy as UMWA anticipates. However, other funding avenues could materialize. To the extent that the Biden administration’s climate and environmental justice goals create new green jobs, coal communities stand to benefit along with other distressed populations.

The picture becomes much more complicated when UMWA lists its proposals for preserving coal mining jobs.

For example, UMWA advocates for policies that incentivize steel production in the U.S. That would stimulate demand for the metallurgical grade coal used in steel making, in addition to improving the outlook for energy demand

However, that is not a long-term solution. The global steel industry is already exploring green hydrogen as a decarbonization pathway, with support from auto makers and other leading steel buyers. The prospects for pitching coal-made steel in the global marketplace are dimming.

Similarly, UMWA proposes incentivizing hydrogen production from underground coal seams. However, the cost of green hydrogen is dropping rapidly. Currently, the main pathway for green hydrogen is electrolysis, in which electricity is deployed to force hydrogen gas from water. Rounding out the green picture is the use of renewable energy to provide the electricity. It is impossible for coal to compete on those terms as the global hydrogen supply chain decarbonizes.

Aside from cost, green hydrogen has additional advantages over coal-sourced hydrogen, especially in the area of electrolysis.

Electrolysis systems are not dependent on specific geological formations, so they can be deployed in a wide variety of locations. They can be scaled down to the size of a parking spot, or even smaller. Depending on the availability of water and energy, electrolysis systems can be sited at or near the point where the hydrogen is to be used. Electrolysis facilities can also be built at existing port sites, providing for easy access to overseas markets for green hydrogen.

More hydrogen trouble ahead for coal workers

To the extent that “green” means renewable, green hydrogen can also be sourced from biogas. Additionally, the element of recycling comes into play, as hydrogen can be extracted from industrial waste gas, recycled plastic, and other synthetic sources.

In an ominous sign for U.S. coal workers, just last week the leading global hydrogen supplier Hyzon launched the Hyzon Zero Carbon Alliance, which aims to accelerate the market for zero emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Though the new organization appears to be focused on green, renewable, or recycled hydrogen, it may also leave room for the 800-pound gorilla in the room: hydrogen sourced from natural gas.

Natural gas is the main source of the global hydrogen supply today. Its pressure on the hydrogen supply chain is all but certain to increase in the coming years. Low-cost renewable energy is pushing natural gas out of the power generation market, and natural gas stakeholders are turning to the hydrogen market to stay afloat.

As UMWA itself acknowledges, natural gas was the initial driver pushing coal out of the U.S. power generation market. Now it is poised to squeeze coal out of the hydrogen market, too.

The carbon capture conundrum

UMWA is also on shaky ground in the area of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The union proposes five-year waivers for operators of coal power plants that commit to installing CCS systems, along with public funding to help commercialize the technology by 2030. However, the commercial viability of CCS has yet to be proven, and the U.S. has already had one bad experience with publicly funded CCS projects for coal power plants, the ill-fated FutureGen project.

The U.S. Department of Energy continues to fund CCS research and demonstration projects, but there is little chance of a direct benefit to U.S. coal workers. Consumer and corporate pressure against coal power plants is already high, and it is growing. If significant public money goes into commercial CCS, the more likely target would be capturing ambient carbon from the air.

Promises, promises

As UMWA proposes, coal mining may continue in the U.S. on a smaller scale, as in the market for rare earth materials. However, even that foothold is subject to change, as researchers engineer new materials to meet new needs.

“The truth is that rank-and-file coal miners have become scarce in the United States,” the union concludes, in recognition that coal communities must adapt.

The U.S. is already peppered with thousands of dead and dying towns that once depended on the extractive industries for local jobs. Coal communities are part of that legacy, but President Biden’s infrastructure bill can provide them with an opportunity to survive and thrive.

The ball is now in the court of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He appears to hold the key to passage with his vote, and the UMWA statement has just provided him with permission to vote in favor.

Image credit: Magnolia677/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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