In fighting to cut the reconciliation bill, Joe Manchin is signing West Virginia's death certificate
As of September 2021, there are 42,300 people employed by the coal mining industry. Miners, engineers, geologists, trainers, mechanics, clerks, managers, technicians, and executives. That’s everybody. That number is down about 20% since Donald Trump took office, though—thanks to what’s been called a “boom” in the last few months, it’s down only about 100 people under President Joe Biden. That’s what counts for a boom in the coal industry these days—losing more slowly.
The reason coal has declined so sharply isn’t hard to spot: It is no longer economically viable. Despite being given vast swaths of federal and state land at minimal cost, despite states failing to collect hundreds of millions in reclamation bonds that are left as a burden when wining companies go bankrupt, and despite the largest mining companies getting to dump billions in debts—including retirement funds and black lung payments to miners—they’re still not competitive. Truthfully, they would not be competitive if the mining companies could lower the cost of coal delivered to power plants to $0. That’s because the cost of maintaining an existing coal-powered generating plant is now higher than the cost of replacing that plant with brand new solar, wind, or natural gas production.
Coal hit an all-time peak in 2008, but thousands of generating units have been switched over to gas over the last decade. Producers in all segments of the country have added solar and wind. And as states across the country have seen coal exit their electrical mix, power prices have actually gone down. While many states did well in 2020 as natural gas prices plummeted in the opening months of the pandemic, states that have improved the renewable component of their production have been less subject to rising prices as gas increased in the fall of 2021.
But not every state has benefited from the shift from coal. In Texas, a rigged market gives companies incentives to keep electrical production skating the edge of demand, driving huge price spikes along with deadly system failures. And in West Virginia, there’s… Joe Manchin.