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Coal Miners Movement Emerges in Southern Illinois

flickr, Atze van Dijk

Bob Sandidge has been in the coal industry for 40 years.  But he's never seen it this bad.  "You turn around and one company lays off people, and another company just filed for bankruptcy and another company is cutting way back," he said.

The co-owner of S & L Industries in Saline County, Illinois, Sandidge does contract work in coal mines. He said even small business owners in the area are beginning to feel the effects of coal’s downturn.

"It’s been pretty quiet around here," he said.

His wife Kelly suggested taking to Facebook to see if there was something that could be done to turn things around. They posted a page titled Coal Miner’s Movement, that largely blamed the downturn on what they called the administration’s "War on Coal."

Within days it had 18,000 likes from across the country.

"It was simply amazing," Sandidge said.

Now the couple has created a website with the slogan Make Coal Great Again! It includes a survey to find out how people have been affected by the industry’s slowdown. Sandidge said they plan to take their concerns to Washington and push for more investments in clean coal technology.

"We want the war on coal to stop," Sandidge said. "The current administration has done tremendous damage to the coal industry for some of the right reasons and some not."

Just a week after the Coal Miner’s Movement Facebook post, the U.S. Supreme Court placed a stay on President Obama's Clean Power Plan. The rule requires a more than 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from power companies by 2030. It’s unclear how the court will rule, especially with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia just days after the stay was issued.

Either way, there’s no debate that the coal industry has taken a beating over the last year. Several companies filed for bankruptcy, including St. Louis-based Arch Coal. Peabody Energy, also headquartered in St. Louis, posted a $2 billion loss in 2015.

Much of the pressure comes from lower natural gas prices. With gas prices low, power companies are less likely to upgrade older coal plants in order to meet new regulations. In November natural gas surpassed coal as the leading source for U.S. power generation. The first time that happened was in April of last year.

Robert Godby, an associate professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Wyoming and director of the university’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy said coal is facing a perfect storm.

"When you burn it, you get about double the carbon dioxide out of coal as you do out of natural gas," he said, "so as companies look forward they think about their investment decisions, they’re thinking more gas, especially while it’s cheap."

The Coal Miner’s Movement is an attempt to make coal competitive again. Sandridge said he thinks the public doesn’t truly understand what’s at stake. He said many people think it’s fine to move on from coal and subsidize the communities left behind.

"We’d rather see that billion dollars put into clean coal technology and put into means of really harnessing this thing and making it a viable option," he said.

For now, Sandidge and his wife are harnessing the power of social media before sending their message to Washington.