“My action today is latest in steps to grow American jobs, ending the theft of prosperity.” – D. Trump.
On March 29, Donald Trump stood in front of dozens of coal miners assembled for a photo op. Behind him were the beaming faces of Mike Pence, Rick Perry and Steve Pruitt. Trump then delivered another huge lie in the form of the Energy Independence Executive Order.
“My action today is latest in steps to grow American jobs, ending the theft of prosperity.”
This statement was by way of promising that rolling back clean water regulations and ending a moratorium on mining Federal land would bring back the coal industry and the jobs that allegedly accompany it. Consistent with his previous bombast on the same topic, the message was delivered with the strong implication that liberals, Obama, Hillary etc etc had destroyed the livelihoods of hard working Americans with over-regulation. This tired narrative is underpinned by the strong sub implication that for some reason the representatives of the left have done these things in the service of evil, or communism or a new world order, or something vaguely reprehensible but distinctly un-American.
Do we blame Trump for the lie, or the people who are willing to believe it in the face of overwhelming evidence that the coal industry is not coming back? Rhetorical question.
Just for the record, coal mining jobs in Appalachia declined far more under previous presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush than they did under Obama. But they were white.
Coal has been dying for decades and everyone seems to understand this but the man making the big promises. Even Charles Murray, owner and operator of the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, publicly cautioned Trump not to create false expectations about bringing back big beautiful coal jobs.
Coal mining currently employs 75,000 workers in the US, down from a peak of about 863,000 in 1923. The Washington Post last week pointed out that Arby’s has far more employees than the entire industry. At this point, the idea that coal mining jobs are a key economic driver is nonsense.
Even in West Virginia, coal mining accounts for only 5% of the economy. But the myth persists, with well paid expert assistance from fossil fuel interests and their operatives.
But this time, coal is not coming back and the reasons are bigger than the liar in the White House.
There are two tracks here, market forces and jobs.
DECLINING DEMAND: US demand for coal has been declining for decades, but took a sharp drop about ten years ago when fracking opened up massive supplies of methane, known in more polite circles as natural gas. Public utilities have been converting to natural gas at a breakneck pace and there is no possibility that this trend is going to reverse. The amount of electricity supplied by coal has dropped from 50% to 30% in only a few years.
Furthermore, energy generated by wind and solar (especially wind) is now less expensive than energy generated by coal. (If you are going to say this is because alternative energy is subsidized and fossil fuels are not, please don’t say it.)
It is the free marketplace that is ending King Coal’s reign, not a war on coal.
AUTOMATION: Mining companies don’t give a rat’s ass about miners and never have. Anything they can do to cut costs will be done. With the advent of strip mining and now Mountaintop Removal (MTR), the need for human miners has dropped precipitously and will continue to do so. Today’s mining trucks built by Caterpillar weigh 850,000 lbs (425 tons) and are autonomous. These monsters can cart away half of a mountainside in one trip and they don’t need drivers. The dragline excavators used to scrap off overburden (the material that gets dumped into the valleys beneath the MTR mine) after the top has been blown off are so massive that they have to be built on site.
Coal production in West Virginia and Kentucky has actually held fairly steady since the eighties, but jobs have been cut in half. There is really on one way to account for that.
It is technological progress that is eliminating jobs, not Obama’s war on coal.
Last week, the Washington Post pointed out that Arby’s employs more people than coal, which claims only about 75,000 jobs nationwide. The wind and solar industries currently account for 560,000 jobs and is the fastest growing segment in the country. That’s why new energy investments are running about two times more than fossil fuel investments.
Even if demand for coal were steady, jobs would continue to decline due to automation.
Why would even a mega demagogue like Donald Trump ignore these facts and continue to spew the narrative promoted by extractive energies for decades? Or, put another way, why would he create false hope in the hearts of people who have been bashed about by forces beyond their control?
Whatever the reason, the ongoing amplification of the bogus narrative gives coal companies cover in their never ending quest to screw workers and avoid responsibility for the environmental havoc they leave behind them. More than 700 mountains have been leveled by MTR and thousands of streams and waterways messed up for good.
All Trump’s rollbacks are going to accomplish is to allow the remaining mines to continue to trash Appalachia, further reducing the potential for a tourism industry to create new jobs.
As if none of this had happened, the extractive industries will continue to make sure their employees in congress continue to demonize regulators and environmentalists. This story has been marketed so relentlessly that the desperate people in the valleys are willing to believe the biggest lie of all.
But, as Charles Murray understands, now the dog has caught the car. Will the people who believed the billionaire understand that they have been betrayed one more time?
If you are a Trump Voter clinging to the idea that environmental regulations are what is holding American back, I have a coal mining job for you in West Virginia.
But first you will need a degree from Trump University.