Wednesday, March 29, 2017

You Load Sixteen Tons

One of the big hit songs of my early childhood – right up there with “The Ballad of David Crockett,” “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window”, and “Black Denim Trousers” – was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “Sixteen Tons,” a song about a coal miner.

That song came out in 1955, a year when there were more than a quarter of a million coal miners in the US.

I’m not sure if our house was still heated by coal in 1955, but I do remember coal.

The Claflin-Sumner truck would back up our hilly, rocky, unpaved driveway. The driver would hop out and adjust the chute at the cellar window. And the coal would come rumbling down.

We lived in my grandmother’s three decker, and in her cellar there were three “coal rooms”, and three furnaces – one for each flat.

I remember my father shoveling coal into our furnace, and my grandmother’s, how exciting it was to see the roaring fire – the fires of hell, it looked like. How brave my father seemed, tossing those shovels full of coal in there, then slamming the asbestos-lined door shut.

Coal kept us warm, and it also meant that our snowmen looked like real snowmen, as we were able to use chips of coal for eyes, mouth, and buttons.

At some point, before we moved up the hill from Nanny’s, we converted coal oil. At our new house, we had gas.

So by the mid-late 1950’s, coal was already losing popularity in some quarters. It may have been firing power plants, but it wasn’t fueling homes. What coal was being used – and there was plenty of it (more than twice a much in 2000 as in 1955) - was produced more efficiently. And that meant fewer miners.

In 1950, there had been 488K coal mining jobs, so by 1955, the number of coal miners was down by almost half if just five years. By 1960, the number was down to 188K.* In 2015, it stood at 65,971.

But the job of coal miner looms large in the American psyche. It’s dirty. It’s tough. It’s manly. It’s dangerous. And all that makes it dramatic (all those disasters!) and perversely romantic. (All those brave, weeping yet stoic widows in How Green Was My Valley, one of the B&W oldies I loved to watch on “Boston Movietime.” OKay, it took place in Wales, but you get the point.)

However dramatic and romantic, coal mining is something of a buggy-whip of an occupation.

Those living in the Appalachian coal fields may want those jobs back, but there seems to be both declining demand for coal, and less need for coal miners to actually extract the coal.

You can see the decline around here.

My sister Trish lives in Salem, Massachusetts, and the town used to have a massive coal-fired power plant. Well, that sucker has been dismantled and replaced by a more modern plant fueled by gas.

Whatever does or doesn’t happen with the EPA, a lot of places just flat out don’t want coal, however much they try to sell us on the clean version. And if some states decide that dirty coal is just fine and dandy, well, you can bet that the states that don’t want soot wafting their way will be setting up blowers on their borders, and suing the overalls off the states that pollute.

As for the demand for coal miners:

The image of miners toiling underground is increasingly antiquated, as companies use automated tools to extract coal from giant seams in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. There, electric shovels are able to claw 400 tons worth of coal at a single time from open pits, and load them up onto rail cars bound for plants as far away as Georgia. 

As a result, total U.S. coal employment plunged to 53,000 last year; in the 1940s, West Virginia alone was home to 126,000 miners. (Source: Bloomberg)

But you tell that to the coal miners at your political peril. Hillary Clinton talked retraining for clean energy jobs. (Boo!) Trump promised to put coal miners back to work. (Yay!)

Unfortunately, that ain’t going to happen.

Getting rid of all clean air regulations isn’t going to staunch the flow away from coal. Natural gas is cheaper. The cost of renewables is coming down. And – oh, yeah – people really do prefer to breathe cleaner air.

“The reality is that the demand for coal has been decreasing for a while and it’s going to continue to decrease,” Sheldon Stone, a partner and head of restructuring at the investment banking firm Amherst Partners, LLC, said in an interview. “Even by doing this you are not going to be bringing mining jobs back.”

So, we’re willing to play Russian Roulette with the environment to allow some coal producers to temporarily (maybe) produce more coal and profits. But there won’t be any more coal miners. Meaning the folks who voted for Trump, thinking that he was going to miraculously turn the clock back and restore the jobs that have been on the way out for decades, have been chumped.

Wonder where the blame will fall? I understand that Hillary Clinton is available. And there’s always Barack Obama.

And wonder what he’s going to tell the truck drivers in 2020, when self-driving trucks start hitting the roads.

Washington, we got a problem, and it ain’t going to solved with lies from the pit of hell, or from a coal pit.

*These numbers came from

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