In Ohio Coal Country, Job Prospects Lie With Neither Coal Nor Trump's Promises | KERA News

In Ohio Coal Country, Job Prospects Lie With Neither Coal Nor Trump's Promises

Dec 13, 2016
Originally published on August 16, 2017 7:39 pm

The path of the Ohio River snakes southwest out of Pittsburgh and forms the border between Ohio and West Virginia. Here, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains rise along its banks, and beneath that Appalachian soil lie the natural resources that have sustained the valley's economy: coal — and now, natural gas.

To people far away, who consume goods made with energy fueled by the Ohio Valley, coal and gas may be harmful agents of global warming.

But to people in Ohio coal country, a good life on the ground is paid for by what's underneath it.

And when Donald Trump made a "Thank You" victory tour appearance in Cincinnati this month, he said what many of them want to hear.

"On energy, we will pursue energy independence and cancel the job-killing restrictions on the production of shale energy, oil, natural gas and clean coal, and we're gonna put the miners of Ohio back to work," he told the cheering crowd.

It's not hard to find Ohio miners who want to get back to work, people like Eric Matthews.

Matthews, 37, was laid off from his job at Murray Energy in Shadyside, Ohio, in November. His employer declared his coal mine spent and shut it down.

Matthews was born and grew up along the Ohio River in Belmont County, where the Shadyside mine is located. After working for an engineering company in Columbus and getting an associate degree there, he came back home and took up mining in 2010.

The job came with a good union contract: time and a half on Saturdays, double time on Sundays, triple time on holidays and birthdays, and an attractive insurance package. In his best year, Matthews says, he made about $90,000.

He feels hopeful that his seniority will land him a job at one of the company's West Virginia mines. The prospects outside mining aren't nearly so attractive.

A neighbor of Matthews' who is a bit younger was also laid off by the same coal mine; he recently got a job with the local water department. The pay is only a fraction of what the men previously earned in mining.

"He actually told me the other day that he makes less at his job now than he did when he was on unemployment," Matthews tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Matthews, who says he usually votes Republican, voted for Donald Trump. In fact, Belmont County — which is historically Democratic — went overwhelmingly for Trump.

Trump's promise to bring back jobs in the coal mines helped him win comfortably in Ohio, surprisingly in Pennsylvania, and predictably in West Virginia.

But Matthews says he voted with little hope that Trump can bring back coal jobs.

"It's sort of one of those things where everybody says what they think you want to hear," Matthew says, adding that he thought Trump would be able to do more for coal miners than Hillary Clinton.

In this coal mining region of Ohio and neighboring West Virginia, where most families have some history of working in mining, people speak of a war on coal.

The market of coal consumers is rapidly shrinking as utilities convert to natural gas.

In 2008, coal-fired plants produced 48 percent of the country's electricity. Last year, it was down to 33 percent.

Bob Murray is a commander of the side defending coal.

He owns Murray Energy, Matthews' old employer and the country's fifth-biggest producer of coal.

On May 1, 2015, Murray says, his company had 8,400 coal miners.

"Because of the destruction of Barack Obama and his administration, that number has dropped now to less than 6,000," he says.

Murray is a larger-than-life character in the coal business. At age 76, he is battling lung disease that is likely related to the years he spent in the mines.

He blames the Obama administration's regulations — limiting emissions of mercury and air toxics, for example — for driving the push to natural gas. He rejects scientific evidence of global warming or any contribution to it by burning fossil fuels.

Murray supported Trump and says Trump can bring back coal jobs if he takes several steps: end the emissions regulations, withdraw from the U.N. climate change agreement — which Murray says "basically is an attempt by developing countries to get American money" — and end subsidies for windmills, solar panels and other forms of renewable energy.

Murray took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to court to block clean air regulations and won a stay. He says that Trump should name a Supreme Court justice who will block presidential excesses and should fire Justice Department lawyers whom he describes as criminals. And that's not all.

"He needs to eliminate one-half of the employees in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He needs to cut the staff drastically in the Department of Interior. He needs to eliminate the Department of Energy altogether," Murray says.

He thinks much of this can be done in a matter of two or three months. And if that happens, Murray says he can have a couple of thousand people back at work by spring at his now idle mines.

But even Murray, the crusader against the so-called war on coal, concedes this: So many coal-fired plants have shut down that the promise of more coal mining jobs will be hard to keep.

"I've told Mr. Trump to caution and temper his statements about bringing the miners back to work," Murray says.

In fact, the big talk of new jobs in Belmont County, Ohio, isn't about coal at all. It's about natural gas — and things you can make from natural gas.

Thailand-based PTT plans to build what's known as a cracker plant, which converts natural gas — that would come in by pipeline — to plastic pellets. The process breaks down — cracks — molecules of ethane. When PTT gives the final go-ahead, expected in the first quarter of 2017, new jobs will start coming.

Democrat Mark Thomas, one of Belmont County's three commissioners, is excited about the big construction project that's almost certainly coming to the county.

"This project here is probably going to be the largest economic development project in monetary terms ever in the state of Ohio," he tells a weekly luncheon of the Kiwanis Club in Wheeling, W.Va., just across the Ohio River from Belmont County.

Thomas estimates that construction of the plant will take four to 4 1/2 years and create thousands of jobs.

On top of that, Thomas says, the cracker plant itself should create 500 to 600 jobs, and if all goes as expected, other factories — with even more jobs — will go up nearby.

Thomas says the county has already received more than a dozen calls from companies that use plastic, like a regional dairy that uses plastic milk jugs made at a plant in Nebraska.

The Kiwanis Club members had questions about the cracker plant. Blake Williams, who grew up near a paper plant and remembers the fumes, expressed environmental concerns.

"These plants do come with, call it, pollutants," Thomas responded, "but those pollutants will be governed, if you will, and or regulated by Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA."

The federal EPA, Thomas told the group, has experience with cracker plants in Louisiana and Texas, where they're located close to offshore gas fields.

One Kiwanian pointed out that the region's boom-and-bust cycle of building pipelines and drilling for gas attracts workers, drives up rents and forces some tenants to the streets. Thomas answered: Government cannot do very much about that.

For the Belmont County commissioner, the pluses of the cracker plant far outweigh the minuses.

A coal-fired power plant once occupied the site on the Ohio River where the new cracker plant would be built.

Unlike in nearby Pennsylvania, where the mountaintops are dotted with windmills, there are none to be seen here. This is fossil fuel country, whether the fuel is coal or gas.

Going back 60 to 70 years, the coal-fired power plant offered hundreds of living-wage jobs with benefits that helped the Belmont County economy tremendously, says Thomas, the county commissioner.

But a transition is underway in Belmont: from the old coal and steel economy to the new natural gas and plastic economy.

"Coal has been a great friend of Belmont County. And still is to this day. The coal industry is on hard times," Thomas says. "What we're trying to do as elected officials here in the region and in the county is accept where we are with that industry and embrace the new industry."

Barring some unforeseen obstacle to the cracker plant's breaking ground, there will be jobs coming to Ohio coal country soon. They won't have much to do with Donald Trump's promises or policies — and they won't have much to do with coal, either.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now we check in on a campaign promise of Donald Trump's, one that helped him win comfortably in Ohio, surprisingly in Pennsylvania and predictably in West Virginia. It's the promise to bring jobs back to the coal mines.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I went to Ohio coal country to hear what people there think of Trump's promise. The path of the Ohio River snakes southwest out of Pittsburgh. It's the border between Ohio and West Virginia. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains rise along its banks, and beneath that Appalachian soil lay the minerals that have sustained the valley's economy - coal and now natural gas.

To people far away who consume goods made with energy fueled by the Ohio Valley, coal and gas may be harmful agents of global warming. But to people in Ohio coal country, a good life on the ground is paid for by what's underneath it. And when Donald Trump made a thank-you tour appearance in Cincinnati this month, he said what many of them want to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: On energy, we will pursue energy independence and cancel the job-killing restrictions on the production of shale energy, oil, natural gas and clean coal. And we're going to put the miners of Ohio back to work.

(CHEERING)

SIEGEL: It's not hard to find Ohio miners who want to get back to work.

ERIC MATTHEWS: My name's Eric Matthews. I'm recently laid off coal miner at the Ohio High Valley Coal Company from Shadyside, Ohio.

SIEGEL: Eric Matthews is 37. He was born and grew up here in Belmont County along the Ohio River. After working for an engineering company in Columbus and getting an associate's degree there, he came back home and took up mining in 2010. His mine had a good union contract.

MATTHEWS: Time and a half on Saturdays, double time Sundays, triple time holidays, triple time birthdays. We had nice insurance package.

SIEGEL: And what was your best year working there? What did you make?

MATTHEWS: Around $90,000.

SIEGEL: It's a good job.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Matthews now spends a lot of time at home with his kids.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGEL: He was laid off in November when his employer declared his coal mine spent and shut it down. Matthews is very hopeful that his seniority will land him a job at one of the company's West Virginia mines. The prospects outside mining aren't nearly so attractive.

MATTHEWS: My neighbor just two doors down - he's I think two years younger than me. He got laid off, and he recently got a job with the water department here in Shadyside.

SIEGEL: Can you get a job with the water department that pays...

MATTHEWS: No.

SIEGEL: ...Eighty, $90,000 a year?

MATTHEWS: No, no - a fraction (laughter). He actually told me the other day that he makes less at his job now than he did when he was on unemployment. So...

SIEGEL: Eric Matthews says he usually votes Republican, and he voted for Donald Trump. In fact, Belmont County, Ohio, which is historically Democratic, went overwhelmingly for Trump. But Matthews says he voted with little hope that Trump can bring back coal jobs.

MATTHEWS: It's sort of one of those things where everybody says what they think you want to hear (inaudible).

SIEGEL: But what you're saying is when it came to promises made about coal and jobs, you voted for Donald Trump despite assuming that he couldn't make good on what he was...

MATTHEWS: I think he'll do more than what Hillary Clinton could, you know?

SIEGEL: In this coal mining region of Ohio and neighboring West Virginia where most families have some history of working in mining, they speak of a war on coal. I met with a man who's a commander of the side defending coal.

This is a transport hub on the Ohio River. It's operated by Eric Matthews' old employer, Murray Energy. Coal comes in by train and truck, and it leaves by river barge for power plants along the Ohio. It's a market of coal consumers that is rapidly shrinking as utilities convert to natural gas.

In 2008, coal-fired plants produced 48 percent of the country's electricity. Last year, it was down to 33 percent. Bob Murray owns Murray Energy. It's the fifth-biggest producer of coal in the country.

BOB MURRAY: On May 1, Mr. Siegel, 2015, we had 8,400 coal miners. Because of the destruction of Barack Obama and his administration, that number has dropped now to less than 6,000.

SIEGEL: Bob Murray is a larger-than-life character in the coal business. At age 76, he's battling lung disease that's likely related to the years he spent in the mines. He blames the Obama administration's regulations limiting emissions of mercury and air toxics, for example, for driving the push to natural gas. He rejects scientific evidence of global warming or any contribution to it by burning fossil fuels. Murray supported Donald Trump and says Trump can bring back coal jobs if he takes several steps.

MURRAY: Step one is to end the regulations. Step two - withdraw from the United Nations' climate change agreement which basically is an attempt by developing countries to get American money. Three - end the subsidies for windmills and solar panels and other forms of energy.

SIEGEL: Bob Murray took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to court to block clean air regulations, and he won a stay. He says Trump should name a Supreme Court justice who will block presidential excesses, and Trump should fire Justice Department lawyers whom he describes as criminals. And that's not all.

MURRAY: He needs to eliminate one half of the employees in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He needs to cut the staff drastically in the Department of Interior. He needs to eliminate the Department of Energy altogether.

SIEGEL: If Trump did everything you want him to do in a reasonable amount of time that's possible to do it, how long are we talking about?

MURRAY: I think much of it can be done in a matter of two or three months.

SIEGEL: You mean in Washington? And then you would already be powering up.

MURRAY: I'd be ready. My mines are cut back. They're sitting there. The people aren't working because of the regulations on them.

SIEGEL: So conceivably by the spring...

MURRAY: By the...

SIEGEL: ...You could have a couple of thousand more miners working.

MURRAY: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

SIEGEL: But even Bob Murray, the crusader against the so-called war on coal, concedes this. So many coal-fired plants have shut down. The promise of more coal mining jobs will be hard to keep.

MURRAY: I've told Mr. Trump to caution and temper his statements about bringing the miners back to work.

SIEGEL: In fact, the big talk of new jobs in Belmont County, Ohio, isn't about coal. It's about natural gas and things you can make from natural gas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm not talking about politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I want to talk in politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: This is the weekly luncheon of the Wheeling, W. Va., Kiwanis Club at the WesBanco Arena, home to the Nailers, the city's minor league hockey team. Belmont County is just across the river. President Mike Taylor introduced the day's guest.

MIKE TAYLOR: I think y'all are aware of Mark Thomas, who has spoke here before - Belmont County commissioner. He's here to be our speaker today.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: As one of Belmont County Ohio's three commissioners, Democrat Mark Thomas is excited about the big construction project that is almost certainly coming to the county.

MARK THOMAS: This project here is probably going to be the largest economic development project in monetary terms ever in the state of Ohio - the largest.

SIEGEL: A company based in Thailand, PTT, is planning to build a plant that converts natural gas that would come in by pipeline to plastic pellets. The process breaks down molecules of ethane or cracks them, so it's called a cracker plant. When PTT gives the final go ahead, new jobs will start coming.

THOMAS: About a four- to four-and-a-half-year build with thousands of construction jobs throughout that entire time period - thousands.

SIEGEL: Then five or six hundred jobs at the cracker plant itself. And then, if all goes right, other factories with more jobs will go up nearby.

THOMAS: And we've already had a dozen to 15 calls from companies asking for land and/or buildings.

SIEGEL: Companies that use plastic, like a regional dairy that uses plastic milk jugs that are made at a plant in Nebraska.

THOMAS: In talking with one of the owners about a month ago, he said, if the plant comes here, we would be able to cut our plastics costs that include the shipping by 65 to 75 percent.

SIEGEL: The Kiwanis Club members had plenty of questions about the cracker plant. Blake Williams, who works in tech support, told me that he grew up near a paper plant and remembers the fumes. He expressed some environmental concerns.

BLAKE WILLIAMS: How might you address any questions on the impact of our health?

THOMAS: With regard to the cracker plant - great question. These plants do come with - call it pollutants. But those pollutants will be governed, if you will, and/or regulated by Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA.

SIEGEL: The federal EPA, Mark Thomas told the group, has experience with cracker plants in Louisiana and Texas, where they're located close to offshore gas fields. Thomas was asked about how the Wheeling region can make some permanent gain out of the bonanza coming across the river.

He was also asked about homelessness. One Kiwanian pointed out that the region's boom and bust cycle of building pipelines and drilling for gas attracts workers, drives up rents and forces some tenants to the streets. Thomas answered, government cannot do very much about that.

For the Belmont, Ohio, county commissioner, the pluses of the cracker plant far outweigh the minuses. We went to the site on the Ohio River where the plant would be built. Unlike nearby Pennsylvania where the mountain tops are dotted with windmills, there are none to be seen here. We are in fossil fuel country, whether the fuel is coal or the fuel is gas.

THOMAS: The site, as we stand here today - look; going back 60, 70 years, it was the home of a coal-fired power plant that for many, many years, hundreds of employees here created living-wage jobs with benefits that helped the Belmont County economy tremendously.

SIEGEL: We're seeing a transition from the old coal and steel economy to the new natural gas and plastic economy.

THOMAS: Absolutely. Coal has been a great friend of Belmont County and still is to this day. The coal industry is on hard times - various factors in the economy. What we are trying to do as elected officials here in the region and in the county is accept where we are with that industry and embrace the new industry and these beautiful reserves that we have all over eastern Ohio that will result in this plant.

SIEGEL: Barring some unforeseen obstacle to the cracker plant breaking ground, there will be jobs coming to Ohio coal country soon. They won't have much to do with Donald Trump's promises or policies, and they won't have much to do with coal, either. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.