“Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Merle Travis wrote and recorded those lines, based on a letter from his coal miner brother, in 1946, when coal was just becoming America’s #1 energy source. The song’s other famous line, “I owe my soul to the company store,” was something Merle’s coal-miner father used to tell him.
Over the years of coal’s golden age, miners’ lives got better, largely because of the negotiating power of the United Mineworkers Union, which provided better paychecks, pension benefits and health insurance. In Steubenville, Ohio, our guest today, Maria Gallucci, the energy & environment reporter at International Business Times in New York City, talked with a former miner who earned just under $30 an hour base pay, and could make close to $100,000 a year.
Now, he’s in a federally-funded program, training to be a truck driver for $20 an hour, and considers himself one of the lucky ones. A lot of his former colleagues in the Murray Energy mine would love both the training and the pay rate, which has nothing like a miner’s pension of health care coverage.
Coal is an industry in trouble, from the mine shaft to the board room. Coal production in the United States last year was at its lowest point in 20 years. Coal’s share of the American electric power generation market, 34% is at its lowest level since 1949.
And coal’s role in global energy markets isn’t looking much better. The world recession has reduced demand, especially in China. Competition from cheaper oil and cleaner natural gas, not to mention environmentally preferable wind and solar power makes coal’s future resemble another famous coal-mining lyric –“It’s dark as a dungeon, down in the mine.”
So what’s next? Not so much for energy production, but for the people, the miners and clerks, and research scholars whose lives have depended on metallurgical coal, used in steelmaking, and thermal coal for power plants? What’s to be their future, and the future of their families and communities, and their state’s economies, all of whom rose high when coal was king, and who have slid down chute as coal has lost its grip?
What’s to be done to find them jobs and incomes, and stable places to live and raise families? Who is to help them? And how?
These are all questions Maria Gallucci has been writing about for the IBTimes. These are answers she sought on a recent trip to the Ohio River Valley, the coal country of southern Ohio.