Romney is not coal’s savior
By Dennis R. Pierce
BLET National President
Brothers and Sisters,
As you all know by now, BLET’s “Proud to be American, Proud to be Union” campaign has been part of a bigger National Division effort to increase member involvement in our union. Involvement in your union is involvement in your future and every member should take an active interest in both.
I continue to see more and more members getting involved and one of the indicators is the level of feedback that we receive via letters, phone calls and email at the National Division. When I asked for membership feedback, I knew that not all of that feedback would agree with the various positions that the National Division has taken, but it is imperative that our union be big enough to show respect for all opinions. It is also imperative that we make sure that we share the facts on any given issue; while we are all entitled to our own opinions, no one is entitled to his or her own set of facts.
For those who wonder, I do see all of the emails and letters that come to the National Division in response to our News Flash bulletins. Our most recent post — sharing President Obama’s letter thanking the BLET for its endorsement — generated several responses addressing the membership’s concern about coal. As we all know, coal shipments are down on both eastern and western roads, and candidate Romney’s supporters have tried to make these downturns part of the political debate. I would ask that you make sure that you remember that there are generally two sides to every story … and coal is no different.
Before I get into the specifics, and for those that are not familiar with my background, I come from a seniority district where the vast majority of the jobs come from coal shipments. I started on the railroad as a Maintenance of Way employee, building the new coal line across Nebraska in the 1970s. The need for engineers to haul that coal is why I became an engineer, so I know first-hand how important coal is to our collective livelihood.
Having just returned from a visit to Nebraska, and also having discussed coal issues with Nebraska BLET officers like Brother Scott Diebler — President of Division 622 in Alliance — I know that Powder River Basin coal shipments are down on BNSF, Union Pacific and on the roads to which they deliver those western coal shipments. I heard the same when I visited Virginia a few weeks ago; both CSX and NS shipments are down as well. Although it does not surprise me that one political candidate or another would politicize this downturn for their advantage, I am writing to give you more than just their sound bites to consider.
While it is true that coal shipments and coal prices have dropped, a deeper review of why this has happened shows a disturbing trend that isn’t really attributable to President Obama’s polices as his opponent would have you believe. Many of you will recall the battle cry of the McCain/Palin ticket in 2008: “Drill, Baby, Drill.” I still own a home that sits on the Barnett Shale in Northern Texas so I can speak first hand as to what “Drill Baby Drill” actually looks like.
For two years, a natural gas “fracking” operation sat less than 1,500 yards from my neighborhood, on land supposedly set aside for a city park. To put it into railroad speak, the rumbling that our neighborhood endured sounded like an EMD SD-40 sitting in your front yard at throttle 6 night and day for months on end. That drilling site was one of thousands in the Barnett Shale, those in addition to the fracking sites in the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania and the Meade Peak and Green River Basin Shales in Wyoming.
As a result of the deregulation started by the Bush administration, the corporations responsible for natural gas drilling operations were relieved of their Superfund cleanup obligations and, more disturbing, they were relieved of even telling the public exactly what is in the chemical mix that they inject into the ground as part of their fracking operations. Natural gas may be “clean” when it hits your furnace, but that is not necessarily true at a drilling site operation; just one more reason that I am a coal guy.
The end result of “Drill Baby Drill” and this deregulation is the lowest natural gas prices in decades. As anyone could have predicted, many power plants converted to what the countless commercials supporting the natural gas industry call “cheap and bountiful” natural gas. As CSX chief sales and marketing officer Clarence Gooden said last week during a conference call in which the railroad announced its third quarter earnings report, “Utility coal volume will continue to be challenged by low gas prices and high utility stockpiles.” And on Saturday, the Beckley, W.Va. Register-Herald reported that “recently, a world-wide decrease in demand for metallurgical (steel-making) coal has had an adverse impact on coal shipments from southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.” The reality is that this market-driven change is what has been the primary driver in our decreased coal shipments.
As further confirmation that this is a market-driven adjustment, certain analysts recommended late last week two coal companies as “good buys” due to the latest turn in the coal/gas competition. When the increase in fracking flooded the market with natural gas, gas prices fell, and the profit-driven power companies converted operations to the cheaper product where they could. Shortly thereafter the gas industry, having set the hook, started cut down on drilling to drive the prices back up. That is when the drilling platform in my neighborhood came down, leaving an empty drilling pad as part of the city’s future park.
As suppliers had planned, natural gas prices are now rising, but something else is happening, too: coal is becoming more attractive. This is all part of how supply and demand work in a market economy, and these factors will continue to drive the volume of coal shipments for years to come.
Some will tell you instead that President Obama wants to kill coal. In my travels across the country I have seen those politically charged commercials. Before you bite on that side of the story and consider trading the current President for a new one, please consider this about President Obama’s opponent. Although it is virtually impossible to ever know which Mitt Romney would govern if he were to be elected, two instances have come forward that show what he did as Governor in Massachusetts. The first involved 2003 video showing Governor Romney standing outside of coal-fired power plant, pointing his finger toward the plant, and saying “That plant kills people!” The second is a court case in which Governor Romney successfully went to the Supreme Court to force the EPA to regulate automobile emissions.
On the flip side, or the flop side, of these actions is the “new” candidate Romney, who has taken all of the required pledges that any right wing candidate must take to get the corporate sponsorship that he hopes will buy the election: no new taxes, no new regulations, and profits are the priority. This anti-regulation Romney is the guy that you should study the most and here is why.
So long as natural gas prices allow power plants to make more profit, can anyone really expect “profits over people” Mitt Romney to push some form of government intervention that would require those power plants to again burn coal instead of gas and thereby be less profitable? The answer is an unequivocal NO!
Regardless of which Mitt Romney shows up, neither of them will be coal’s savior. And both Mitt Romneys have pledged to destroy Amtrak, which would eliminate not only 20,000 union-represented jobs for American citizens, but also would wipe out their contributions to your Railroad Retirement. Add that both Romneys support running mate Paul Ryan’s plans to “voucherize” Medicare, including increasing Medicare eligibility age for many of us to 67. Your bridging insurance under GA 23000/46000 only lasts until age 65, so this change would effectively eliminate your rights to retire before age 67 as you would be uninsured and uninsurable between ages 65 and 67. Finally, no matter what the congressmen who voted for the Ryan Budget tell you, Paul Ryan himself has confirmed that he intends to “conform” your Tier 1 Railroad Retirement benefits to Social Security benefits. That would eliminate our 60/30 retirement option, and our right to an occupational disability.
Mitt Romney is a boss … first, last and always. That’s why every few days we see or read or hear about some company owner threatening his workforce with layoffs if President Obama is elected. Whom do you think the carrier’s CEOs want to win? What do you think their agenda will be if a boss moves into the White House? If that agenda includes a push for one man operation, do you want the Carrier’s friend Romney to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to settle that dispute?
These facts are not abstract ideas that affect others, they involve issues that directly will affect you and your families for years to come. Before you consider trading President Obama for either “candidate” Romney or “anti-regulation” Romney, you owe it to yourself to study all of the facts and all of the economic issues, and make sure that you are not trading down. I have made that study, and I will NOT make the trade that either Romney offers.
Monday, October 22, 2012