In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
By sometime early this evening, West Virginians will get to see first-hand whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump can give Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Jim Justice a run for his money in the category of pandering to coal miners.
Justice, of course, is falsely telling our state’s hardworking miners and their families that if they will just elect him governor, West Virginia will end up “mining more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Justice told Hoppy Kercheval to “mark it down.” While Justice was blustering, two of his companies were on trial in Wyoming County, facing a suit from 15 families who say one of his mining operations contaminated their drinking water wells. (UPDATED: The jury in the Wyoming County case ruled in Justice’s favor.)
Trump, meanwhile, had this to say the other night after winning the GOP primary in Indiana:
… And West Virginia. And we’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed and she will never let them work again.
Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.
The Associated Press has a pretty decent “fact check” item out on the subject of Trump and Appalachian coal. The AP concludes:
Trump, however, has yet to explain exactly how he will revitalize Appalachia’s coal industry. To pull it off, he will have to overcome market forces and a push for cleaner fuels that have pummeled coal.
Coal’s slump is largely the result of cheap natural gas, which now rivals coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards.
Another hurdle for reviving coal mining in Appalachia: less coal. Reserves of coal still in the ground are smaller than in western states like Wyoming, the leading coal producer.
The story goes on:
It is unclear what Trump would do to increase mining jobs. He has long criticized the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, saying that its proposals to tighten emission standards on coal-burning power plants are killing American jobs. A Trump adviser said that a Trump administration would review many EPA regulations including those affecting the coal industry.
While the requirements have raised the cost of operating coal-fired plants, experts say a bigger factor in coal’s decline has been cheaper natural gas. Drilling techniques such as fracking have sparked a boom in gas production, driving down prices and prompting utilities to switch from coal.
As recently as 2008, about half the electricity in the U.S. came from burning coal and one-fifth from burning natural gas. Today, each accounts for about one-third — nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables like solar and wind make up most of the rest. Weak economic growth has hurt demand for Appalachian coal used in making steel.
The AP quotes John Deskins, director of an economic-research bureau at West Virginia University, who says that government’s ability to boost coal production is limited:
“It is very unlikely we will see a return to levels of coal production like we observed in 2008,” the most recent peak in the state, Deskins said. Easing EPA restrictions — the industry is challenging EPA in court — would help over the long run, but not enough to offset the loss of market share to natural gas, he said.
Writing on his Climate Progress blog, Joe Romm makes some other good points about Trump and coal. For example:
Donald Trump markets himself as a business-savvy billionaire who will get American jobs back from countries like China. In the case of the coal industry, however, he appears to be just a very clueless politician making pro-pollution promises he can’t keep.
“I’m a free-market guy, but not when you’re getting killed,” he said recently at a rally in Carmel, Indiana. “Look at steel, it’s being wiped out. Your coal industry is wiped out, and China is taking our coal.”
Huh? “China is taking our coal”? If China were taking much of our coal (in the form of U.S. exports) that would be great for coal jobs.
If Trump meant Chinese coal exports are taking away our coal market (i.e. potential U.S. sales overseas), then he is truly clueless about the coal business. China flipped from net coal exporter to net importer back in 2009 (!) and quickly became the world’s biggest importer.
We have exported a modest amount of coal to China in recent years — but again these statistics provide zero support for the claim that China is somehow harming our coal industry, let alone wiping it out.
There is zero chance Donald Trump or anyone else can reverse the multi-decade decline in coal jobs for two reasons. First, it has been the coal industry itself that has wiped out most of those jobs.
As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explained in 2014, “The real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.”
As he explains, “strip mines and machinery in general have allowed us to produce more coal with very few miners.” Strangely, we never hear about Reagan’s war on coal (as I’ve said). Or George H. W. Bush’s war on coal.
Second, the market for coal has started to collapse — both domestically because of compensation from cheaper and cleaner energy sources — and internationally, as the global export collapses because most countries in the world are moving away from that dirtiest of fossil fuels just as fast as we are.
In the end, though, I keep going back to these somewhat-widely quoted comments Trump made about coal miners back in March 1990 in, of all things, a Playboy interview:
What satisfaction, exactly, do you get out of doing a deal?
I love the creative process. I do what I do out of pure enjoyment. Hopefully, nobody does it better. There’s a beauty to making a great deal. It’s my canvas. And I like painting it.
I like the challenge and tell the story of the coal miner’s son. The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son . If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination–or whatever–to leave their mine. They don’t have “it.”
“It” is an ability to become an entrepreneur, a great athlete, a great writer. You’re either born with it or you’re not. Ability can be honed, perfected or neglected. The day Jack Nicklaus came into this world, he had more innate ability to play golf than anybody else.
Read that part again:
The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son. If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it’.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that we don’t see this insult to miners being posted left and right on the social media accounts of coal industry front groups. What if Hillary Clinton — or god forbid President Obama — had said that the people of coal communities just don’t have the imagination to do anything else?
On the other hand, it certainly is good to know that Donald Trump has heard of black lung. We can look forward to hearing him talk tonight in Charleston about his plan to carry forward the work of the Obama administration to try to end this deadly disease. He loves coal miners. Surely he wants to make sure they come home safe every day and don’t die a terribly, horribly painful death once he gets the industry rolling again.