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Opinion: Coal industry worth supporting during crisis

Conor Bernstein

As the COVID-19 crisis wreaks havoc on nearly every part of the nation’s energy sector, now is not the time for partisan fights over which industries and energy sources deserve government support. Yet that’s exactly what has happened.

The coal industry has asked and will continue to advocate for relief to weather the coronavirus pandemic. But the usual critics have launched determined opposition. It doesn’t require reading between the lines to understand the thrust of their message: “While it’s important to preserve American industry and American jobs in this dire moment, coal jobs and coal country can take a back seat.” 

That stance is as absurd as it sounds. Coal continues to provide roughly a quarter of the nation’s electricity generation. And in many states, coal is the leading fuel for electricity generation. In regional electricity grids across the country, coal plants often play an irreplaceable role in ensuring affordable, reliable power where communities need it most. This is an essential industry and it deserves smart, targeted support. 

This is an essential industry and it deserves smart, targeted support, Bernstein writes.

Unlike other industries, the coal industry isn’t asking for a cash bailout. It’s simply asking for flexibility and a near-term reduced regulatory and tax burden to ensure its viability in this extraordinary time. 

The stress facing the mining industry is very real. Energy demand is already being affected by city and state-wide lockdowns. The conditions expected in electricity markets in the coming weeks and months will profoundly impact an industry still trying to recover and find its footing after years of regulatory overreach that shuttered plants and closed mines. 

Policymakers shouldn’t let current conditions in electricity markets produce sweeping consequences for the long-term health of an essential industry. It’s important that we think about the electricity-generating portfolio we’ll need in the years ahead. America’s power grid still requires on-demand, fuel-secure coal power. And it needs America’s miners to produce it. 

Government has the opportunity to prevent an unnecessary hollowing out of a critical industry and workforce. The best thing Washington can do is make sure that essential industries are given the means to continue operating and keep people working. 

If we handle this challenge correctly — facing down a health crisis and effectively managing economic upheaval — we can rebuild and strengthen American industry. If we fail to act, or if we choose to leave some industries and communities behind, we could produce a second economic crisis of our own making.

The measures proposed by the coal industry to weather this storm will help safeguard the jobs of 116,000 Americans directly employed at our nation’s coal mines and 289,000 others indirectly employed through mining operations. These actions will also preserve the secure, affordable and balanced electricity mix we’ll need in the years ahead. 

Conor Bernstein is senior director of communications at the National Mining Association.