When Tim Abrams is up at night, sitting at the kitchen table of his rural Sullivan County home fretting about the future of Indiana’s coal industry, he’s not worried so much about his own job. The 56-year-old was 22 when he landed a position at the coal-fired Merom Generating Station, which, along with the nearby Bear Run Mine and Carlisle Mine, was one of the only high-paying employers in the county of 20,000 people just south of Terre Haute. He has enjoyed a three-decade career in the business. Abrams is concerned because, as president of the County Council, he knows the life-sustaining power coal has given the region, both literally and figuratively through employment. And, like everyone else in the area, he sees the industry dying right before his eyes.
Sunrise Coal permanently closed the Carlisle Mine in March, laying off 90 workers. Soon thereafter, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Bill 1414, a measure that extended the phasing-out of coal plants across Indiana by 12 months, after a lengthy battle in the state legislature that stoked media attention and public passions around the hot-burning issue. The reprieve was little consolation to Abrams and the people of Sullivan County, who had recently received word that Hoosier Energy planned to shutter the 1,070-megawatt Merom station, the fifth-largest power plant in the state, in 2023.
While coal is still king in Indiana—it currently supplies about 73 percent of Hoosiers’ electricity—renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectricity are rapidly supplanting it in other states. That, along with the plummeting cost of renewables, has brought pressure on local utility companies and legislators to replace the fossil fuel with those cleaner forms of power. Which is good for almost everyone except the coal miners and the local economies they help sustain. Every year, the industry has a $750 million economic impact here.
“My time will be over soon,” says Abrams of his coal career. “I’ve had a lot of years to work. But when that Merom plant closes, what’s going to happen to our mine workers and all the other parts of the community it’s going to affect? I really don’t know how it’s going to play out, but it’s not going to be good.”
Indiana sits on an enormous trove of burnable coal. Mining of the substance began here in the 1830s. But even after almost 200 years of siphoning from the Hoosier bedrock, the Indiana Geological & Water Survey at Indiana University estimates that there are still about 17 billion tons of accessible coal remaining. At current rates of production, that could power the state for more than 500 years.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. For decades, scientists have warned that burning coal releases a cadre of pollutants into the air. The mercury, nitrogen oxide, lead, and carbon monoxide have been linked to everything from heart disease to cancer. What’s more, researchers say the industry’s carbon dioxide and methane emissions are accelerating climate change. Even with the reduction of these pollutants brought by the Clean Air Act, most scientists consider the industry term “clean coal” to be oxymoronic.
[pullquote align=”left” caption=”State Rep. Ed Soliday“]”How do we repurpose the land to pay teachers and police officers? That’s what all this is about.”[/pullquote]Which is why coal’s ultimate future isn’t really up for debate. Even proponents of Indiana H.B. 1414, which was dubbed by detractors as a “coal bailout,” argue that the law is designed merely to provide a smooth transition to reliance on natural gas and renewable energy sources. “I don’t think anyone can save the coal industry,” admits Rep. Ed Soliday of Valparaiso, a Republican who authored the bill. “No one is fighting renewables. They are here to stay.”
The inevitability of coal’s demise is borne out by the numbers. While Indiana’s coal production has remained fairly steady, consolidation and advances in mining technology have eroded the number of jobs needed to pull the stuff from the ground. In 1985, more than 6,000 Hoosiers were employed by coal mines alone—now there are just 2,500 Indiana coal miners.
So if there are 14 times as many Hoosiers working at Walmart (35,000) than in the mines, why the big fuss over these jobs? First, the coal industry tends to pay much better than retail, averaging about $55,000 annually, with good benefits. And the jobs are concentrated in the western and southwestern parts of the state, in some of Indiana’s poorest counties, many already suffering from an exodus of manufacturing. The coal mines and plants are among the few remaining sources of a middle-class wage, and most positions don’t require a college degree.
For each one of those paychecks that is lost, there’s a ripple effect. Not only does a family miss a primary income, but nearby retailers, restaurants, and service providers lose a customer. That loss is amplified when an entire mine or plant shuts down, putting whole communities out of work and depriving local governments and school systems of tax revenue.
The Indiana Coal Council trade association commissioned a 2019 study in Jasper County, where the R.M. Schahfer power plant is scheduled to be phased out in 2023. The study found that the closure will cause county unemployment to rise by more than 40 percent and extract three-quarters of the township taxes and 30 percent of local school taxes. “Mines are typically the largest taxpayer in the county,” says Bruce Stevens, president of the Indiana Coal Council. “When a mine closes or they announce the closure of a power plant, it’s going to harm public services, schools, roads … it’ll have a cumulative effect.”
The debate about the future of coal in Indiana has become less a question of if fossil fuel will be phased out and more of how and when. The fight took center stage during the shaping of H.B. 1414, with Republicans, Democrats, coal advocates, and those who are pushing for alternative energy sources each pitching their vision for the future of the Indiana grid. But all sides seemed to at least concede that it would inevitably involve fewer Hoosiers making their living from the old black gold. For that reason, legislators included a section in the law pledging to give priority for workforce development grants to “coal transition workers” who have been laid off due to mine and plant closures.
The promise to retrain displaced miners was one of the few things both sides agreed upon. Less clear is precisely what that might look like. “If coal is no longer viable, how do we retrain those workers?” says Soliday. “How do we repurpose the land to pay teachers and police officers? That’s what all this is about.”
For the workers, the focus is on skills that might be transferable to other industries, perhaps at other energy companies. Businesses such as Emergent Solar Energy and Horizon Wind Energy, which provide wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, are among the fastest-growing in any sector in Indiana. Advanced Energy Economy, a trade group comprised of those types of companies, reports that nearly a quarter of their employers struggle to find a qualified workforce. Many coal workers have a solid grasp of direct current, complex machinery, and engineering. They understand construction. Less tangibly, they are no strangers to hard work. “Skill transferability is more anecdotal than specific,” says Caryl Auslander, spokesperson for Indiana AEE. “But those who have lost their jobs in coal mines are hard workers, and we’re always looking for that.”
People can be uprooted and transplanted to where the job opportunities are—but the local tax revenue is harder to replace. In other parts of the country, the government has tried to step in. In 2015, President Obama’s administration implemented the POWER Plan, a program that directs federal funds into Appalachian communities to rebuild a region wrecked by the departure of coal. Those efforts were aimed at diversifying local economies, ensuring access to capital for small businesses, and strengthening basic infrastructure like sewers and telecommunications networks.
But the land occupied by former power plants and mines is often difficult to repurpose because of ravaged terrain and toxic waste. In West Virginia, the sprawling sites of coal mines have been replaced with fields of solar panels, which some see as an option for Indiana. The plots could also provide room for wind turbines. Some organizations are getting a little more creative. The Land Betterment Corporation, a company geared to repurpose former coal facilities, recently announced that the former Landree Mine in Greene County that closed in 2014 will now be home to a craft-spirits distillery.
In Sullivan County, where they’re staring down the 2023 closure of the Merom Generating Station, they need to find a solution quickly. Abrams says Hoosier Energy has already discussed transferring some of the Sullivan County plant workers into other sectors of the business, including transmission and meter relay jobs, but most of those are more than an hour east in Bloomington. Chicago-based Invenergy Solar Development North America just broke ground on an 1,800-acre solar farm near Fairbanks Township, which will help with some initial construction jobs and replace some of the county’s tax revenue. But Abrams is skeptical that will provide as much long-term employment or reliable energy as the Merom plant his father helped build.
“It’s ready to run—1,000 megawatts just ready to fire up,” Abrams says of the doomed generating station. “Those are valuable jobs and a valuable product for this country. To do away with that … it’s unbelievable.”