February 17, 2016

The Future Of Coal: A Union Boss Weighs In

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Al Ekblad, Executive Secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO

Courtesy: Montana AFL-CIO

Al Ekblad, Executive Secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO

For people working in America’s coal industry, these are scary times. Cheap natural gas and concerns about climate change have utilities moving away from coal, and what once looked like strong overseas markets for U-S coal exports are stumbling lately. That has unions that represent coal miners and power plant workers fighting to protect their jobs, or to maybe negotiate job buyouts in the face of industry downsizing. That’s the case in Colstrip, Montana, where close to a thousand union laborers have built homes, livelihoods and a whole town around a coal strip mine and an adjacent power plant, one of the biggest in the U-S. The head of Montana’s AFL-CIO unions sat down with Montana Public Radio’s Eric Whitney to share his opinions on coals transition.

WHITNEY: Union Executive Secretary Al Ekblad is not a climate change denier. He says he believes it represents a real, existential threat to the planet.

EKBLAD: I have tremendous respect for people in the environmental community, we are not in the group that has ever denied that the human race is having an impact on the climate, and that we should do everything we can to address climate.

WHITNEY: What he disagrees with is the assumption that big coal-fired power plants, like the 21-hundred megawatt Colstrip Generating Station, have to shut down to get America to a place where it can both meet its energy needs and not throw the climate out of balance.

EKBLAD: I personally don’t think we will get there by building more windmills in the next 20 years, or solar. The question nobody in the environmental community wants to answer is: How much does that really impact anything?

WHITNEY: Ekblad believes the technology just doesn’t exist right now for America to meet its demand for a constant, steady-state source of electricity without coal. Shutting down coal, he says, means huge economic impacts for the country, and eliminating thousands of solid, middle class blue collar jobs in coal industries.

EKBLAD: I don’t think there’s enough discussion in the media about the middle ground. Let’s accept the fact that we are contributing, as the human race, to climate change, we have a moral obligation to address that. Lets find a solution that doesn’t devastate an industry in our state.

WHITNEY: Unions, Ekblad claims, are a lot more realistic about finding workable solutions than environmental groups.

EKBLAD: There are a lot of people in the environmental community that are only interested in end date, when those plants close. They’re not interested in a discussion of how we get there in a different way, because their fundraising model is about coming up with an end date for those plants.

WHITNEY: Ekblad says he’s heard some discussion about helping coal mine and power plant workers transition to new careers, maybe buying out their jobs, but he doesn’t take it very seriously.

EKBLAD: I’ve spent a lifetime working with people trying to transition from one industry to another, and most of the times the devastation to family and in this case the devastation to that community is unconscionable. This isn’t just about helping someone transition to another job, this is about assuring they don’t lose their pension,this is about assuring that they have comparable benefits. comparable benefits. And when those costs are added in, my expectation would be, a whole lot of people who think transition is a good idea they’ll say, we can’t afford that. Because they don’t have any idea what these jobs are worth.

WHITNEY: Ekblad says that Colstrip has faced other regulatory in the past, and that the plant has been able to adapt and meet them. Rather than buying out the workers there, the union leader says the country should invest in carbon sequestration technology, and then put union laborers to work installing it at coal plants.