The Mine Safety and Health Administration should issue a temporary emergency standard to protect coal miners from the virus, instead of the weak guidance it has so far offered, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should do the same for all frontline and essential workers.
The ongoing crisis could speed up what has already been a slow-moving train wreck for the coal industry; U.S. coal use declined sharply in March compared to natural gas and wind, suggesting the pandemic could hit the reeling industry disproportionately.(E&E News, 4/8/2020, “Can Coal Survive the Corona Virus” EIA is now projecting a 20 % decline in coal generation over last year.
Some producers are idling operations and declaring bankruptcy. At the end of March, bankrupt Murray Energy, the nation’s 4th largest coal producer, requested that a bankruptcy court waive its required payments for retiree medical costs of about $6 million per month because the company is on the verge of liquidation, after it failed to receive a single bid for its assets during bankruptcy proceedings. According to its website, Murray employs almost 7,000 people and operates 17 active coal mines. At least some of these mines could continue to operate even if the company is liquidated.
Coal mining companies are generally bad corporate citizens. The National Mining Association is pleading with Congress and the administration to allow companies to weasel their way out of statutory requirements to provide health benefits for the workers who made their executives rich and to clean up the mess left behind from coal mining. Market dynamics do not favor the industry, which is why they are desperate to get out of taxes that support retirees and environmental cleanup.
Coal miners, plant operators, and their communities will continue to need support and resources long after the pandemic fades.