Alabama Coal: More Questions Than Answers

May 9, 2017

Slurry Pit
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

Coal was once king here in Alabama. But federal regulations and rising prices have forced changes in Alabama’s energy economy. This impacts both the industries that need a source of energy and the coal workers who make a living supplying that need. This second part of a two part series looks at the future of energy and coal communities in Alabama. 

“There’s a natural gas well.”

Nelson Brooke is the Black Warrior Riverkeeper. A lot of Alabama’s current and former coal operations sit alongside the river. That means part of Brooke’s job is keeping an eye on anything from the mines that ends up in the water. Michael Sznajderman sees coal differently. He’s a spokesperson for Alabama Power.

“Over the last couple of years, as you know, the price of natural gas has come down. So from an economic standpoint as well, natural gas is more attractive to us.”

Good times for natural gas means less business for Alabama’s coal workers. But nothing in life is permanent, even the current boom times for natural gas. Ahmad Ijaz is the Executive Director and Director of Economic Forecasting for the Center for Economic and Business Research at the University of Alabama. He says things could easily change.

“If the natural gas prices -- it has gone up this year, so if the natural gas prices go up, and there has been some shift in regulations from the new president’s administration. We might see some increase in coal mining employment.”

Price changes aren’t the only thing driving the shift towards natural gas. There are more environmental regulations on coal than on natural gas. It’s been marketed as cleaner than coal, but Nelson Brooke has his doubts, even if it means less coal possibly threatening the Black Warrior River.

“Clean burning -- it’s a very smart marketing campaign. That’s a relative term. But compared to coal, it’s cleaner. That doesn’t mean that it’s clean.”

Natural gas has an additional environmental impact when it’s extracted out of the ground using a technique called hydraulic fracturing.

“When they drill down to where the coal seams are, and use high pressure water and chemical mixtures to fracture the coal seam apart, putting in also, sand to hold the cracks open, so that the gas can escape back out and up to supply lines, there’s a lot of groundwater contamination that occurs.”

Credit Allison Mollenkamp / APR

Natural gas, then, doesn’t necessarily solve the environmental problems of coal. What about jobs? Here’s Michael Sznajderman again.

“We actually have seen a modest reduction in personnel related to generation because of our move towards natural gas.”

Sznajderman says the drop in jobs occurred through people voluntarily moving, rather than handing out pink slips. But it may still mean fewer jobs going forward. If natural gas doesn’t replace coal jobs, what will?

Cody Woods is currently a coal miner, but he's finishing his electrical tech certification at Bevill State Community College in Jasper.

“If I ever get laid off again from the mines in the future, it will leave me open to a lot of job opportunities. It will also open up opportunities in-field to become an electrician which is a promotion, pay raise.”

Mr. Woods was laid off three years ago but was recently rehired. United Mine Workers of America contracts require that companies rehire the miners they laid off before hiring new miners.

Credit Allison Mollenkamp / APR

“Really I’m glad I did get laid off so I could go ahead and get my education. 'Cause if, say, I worked ‘til I was forty-five and got laid off at that point, you know, I’m an old man then, hadn’t got an education, it would have just been a lot harder.”

Mr. Wood’s is a success story in the changing world of coal. There are some that haven’t been so successful. In many cases, people like Nelson Brooke are cast as the villains in those stories. 

“I think the problem we get into is when the higher-ups at some of these coal companies want to create these kind of false battles between jobs and the environment and claim that we’re out to kill coal and kill jobs and this radical platform that isn’t even needed because they have environmental regulations that govern their operations and they’re, they’re doing just fine.”

Cody Woods has his doubts about the usefulness of the environmental regulations.

“Personally, I don’t believe in global warming. I mean, the same scientists talking about global warming also say we’ve had three or four ice ages. What caused them to melt? I mean, were the dinosaurs burning fossil fuels?”

For Nelson Brooke, the environment is more personal than just the ozone layer. He thinks he’s not alone.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke at Davis Creek
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

“We have a lot of supporters in the coal mining industry. There are a lot of miners who are members of Black Warrior Riverkeeper who use the river on a regular basis, they grew up on the river and its tributaries. They love to go fishing, they take their families and their kids there. The idea of protecting the river isn’t really foreign to them at all. They understand it as well as we do.”

It’s easy to imagine things that way. As much as coal is part of the landscape in Brookwood, the creeks are too.

“We have on numerous occasions seen Davis Creek here where you can’t see the rocks in the bottom of it as we can today. Flowing very turbid, and kind of a, a blackish grey color.”

But the day Nelson Brooke took us out to the creek, the water ran clear, and it was one of the prettiest spots in Brookwood. It was a rare place of calm in a world where things are changing quickly and the future is filled with more questions than answers.