By Luke Popovich

If you’re doing The New York Times crossword puzzle and need a four-letter word for “jobs,” you could do worse than trying “C-O-A-L.”  

Year after year, the abundance of U.S. coal and the nation’s steady reliance on it has generously produced high-wage jobs in dozens of states. Despite the recession last year, coal mining  provided 135,000 direct jobs at 2,064 mining operations in 25 states and paid miners as much as double the statewide average in the states where we operate. That doesn’t count $16 billion in indirect payroll and the $8 billion coal paid in local, state and federal payroll and social security taxes.

Now that jobs are in great demand, you’d expect coal would be getting some “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” from Washington officials scrambling to assure voters that more jobs are coming.  With the November elections only one hot summer away, few congressional seats feel safe in the Great Recession. The job market is little improved in the full year since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said: “It is all about a four-letter word: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.  We are all about jobs.”  

Just last month, the Commerce Department found 41,000 private jobs were added in May, fewer than in any month since January; the rest mostly came from the hiring of 411,000 census workers. Jobless numbers alone understate the political significance. More Americans today are without work for six months or longer than at any time in the past 40 years.  And jobless data don’t capture those worried about losing their job or concerned about friends and families without one. For these folks, the recovery looks less like a “U”—a typically strong upturn, than an “L”—where there’s no upturn.

Small wonder then that official Washington is pledging to make jobs government’s top priority. 

But as members of Congress heard last month, not all federal agencies share this “jobs first” priority. At the EPA, for example, officials responsible for implementing policies with far-reaching impacts on the U.S. job market recently told Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) that the EPA has no obligation to consider them.

The House Coal Caucus, a bipartisan group of coal state members concerned about coal communities, learned that 81 small businesses and more than 17,000 coal-supported jobs are at risk from the agency’s decision to ignore the economic ramifications from holding up 190 coal mining permits in Appalachia. Or consider the EPA’s decision to regulate CO2 emissions from coal-based power plants and thousands of other sources.  Independent analyses have estimated long-term job losses from cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  Yet the EPA cobbled together a plan to target major sectors of the economy without undertaking any assessment of the cumulative impact on jobs and the economy.

Then there’s the agency’s upcoming mercury and air toxics rule. The United Mine Workers of America told Coal Caucus members it could result in the loss of 54,000 direct jobs in the coal and rail industries and up to 200,000 indirect jobs. Bill Banig, the union’s government relations director, said the air toxics rules would impact the coal industry more than the climate change bill now under discussion in the Senate.

Representatives from coal mines to coal-burning utilities left the Caucus with no doubt that coal spells jobs. “Coal is the real deal because it provides real jobs,” said NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn. “With more than $8 billion in direct payroll, coal mining jobs paid as much as double the statewide average in the states where we operate,“ he said.

Coal is essential to other jobs. “We can’t make steel without coal,” said Kevin Dempsey, senior vice president and general counsel, American Iron & Steel Institute. You can’t run a railroad without it either.  Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said one in every five rail jobs is linked to coal shipments.  “Without coal, the U.S. rail network would face a need for vast restructuring with greatly reduced capacity to invest in the nation’s rail network infrastructure,” he said.

When Americans need more jobs, they need more coal—not less.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.