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Donald Trump can't bring back all those lost coal mining jobs

obama coal (Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

On the second night of the Republican National Convention, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia went onstage and railed against Hillary Clinton's "anti-coal agenda." Her kicker: "I weep for the fabric of my state."

Capito is right that West Virginia’s coal industry is collapsing and mining jobs are vanishing -- and it’s genuinely hurting the state. She’s also right that the industry will likely keep shrinking under Clinton, who plans to tackle global warming by further curtailing America’s coal use in favor of cleaner energy sources.

But here’s the secret Capito didn’t mention: West Virginia’s coal industry would also keep shrinking under Donald Trump. And he has no real idea what to do about it. His big economic speech today only confirmed that.

Because despite Trump’s airy boasts that he’ll revitalize Appalachia and "put our coal miners back to work," he can’t bring back all those lost coal jobs. He and other Republicans have been in complete denial about the fact that most of the jobs are gone forever. And, to boot, they’ve been blocking efforts to help coal communities adapt to this uncomfortable new reality.

The US coal industry is collapsing — and it’s not coming back

Here’s the big picture: Coal production across the entire United States is falling off a cliff. Back in 2008, the country produced a record 1.2 billion short tons of coal, supplying fully one-half of the nation’s electricity. By 2015 that had fallen to 900 million tons, and coal supplied just one-third of our power.

(Energy Information Administration)

US coal mining jobs have been disappearing for even longer — falling dramatically since the 1980s and continuing to plunge during the Obama years. This has been a real blow to places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky:

(FRED)

There are a whole slew of reasons for the decline in coal production:

  • The fracking boom since the late 2000s has led to a flood of cheap natural gas around the country, prodding many electric utilities to switch from coal to gas.
  • This has come right as US electricity demand has stagnated, putting further pressure on coal.
  • Various states like California and Oregon and New York are proactively turning away from coal and toward cleaner renewable energy as concern about global warming grows.
  • The Sierra Club has been actively thwarting the development of new coal plants and convincing utilities to close existing ones.
  • On top of that, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has enacted a number of strict air pollution rules — on mercury and sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide — that have raised costs for dirty coal plants and further accelerated this shift to gas and renewables. Utilities have retired dozens of coal units as a result.
  • Meanwhile, sagging Chinese steel production has weakened demand for metallurgic coal, pushing many mining companies into bankruptcy.

Amid all this, Appalachia’s miners have been suffering disproportionately here, because:

  • Coal mining jobs continue to be mechanized and employment keeps falling, a trend that has been going on for decades, dating back to the Reagan era and before.
  • Many of Appalachia’s best coal seams have been mined out, and operations are increasingly moving to the bigger, lower-sulfur coal deposits out West, in Wyoming and Montana.

There are a lot of interlocking factors here, and many of them aren't really affected by who's in the White House. So when Donald Trump says, "We will put our coal miners back to work," as he did today, we should be skeptical.

The one thing Trump could do is repeal many of the EPA’s pollution regulations, and he’s promised to do just that. That might help slow coal's decline a bit (though many of those coal retirements are already irreversible, and it'd also come at the cost of higher pollution). But it'd be unlikely to bring back most of those lost jobs, because all those other factors would still be in place. Crucially, natural gas is expected to have a cost advantage for years to come. And Trump actually wants to expand fracking and natural gas production — putting more pressure on coal, not less.

Indeed, even coal industry execs who support Trump are skeptical that he can bring back those lost jobs. "I don't think it will be a thriving industry ever again," coal mining CEO Robert Murray recently told SNL reporter Taylor Kuykendall. Even in the best case, Murray added, "it will be an extremely competitive industry and it will be half size. … The coal mines cannot come back to where they were or anywhere near it."

Democrats want to speed up (and soften) the transition away from coal. What do Republicans want?

Trump
I’ve got the best plans. Really. (Ethan Miller/Getty)
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Now, Democrats certainly aren’t likely to improve coal's fortunes. Hillary Clinton’s climate and energy plan would aim to speed up the country’s shift away from coal — in part by moving forward with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity sector and increasing coal plant retirements.

Yet Clinton also wants to pair these policies with a $30 billion program to help mining communities in West Virginia, Kentucky, and elsewhere to deal with the loss of mining jobs. This would include job training and small-business development. It is, in effect, a recognition of the fact that most of those mining jobs are never coming back — and the best course of action is to embrace cleaner power and aid those left behind by the transition through retraining and other policies.

That may not be the best possible plan out there. (For one, the federal government's track record on job retraining is pretty dismal.) It could very well be improved.

But Trump and other Republicans aren’t really offering any alternatives at all. They spend most of their time railing against Obama’s "war on coal" — and pushing the illusion that all those jobs can somehow be brought back. And, in the meantime, conservatives like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have been blocking a $4 billion plan in Congress that would send aid to troubled coal communities and shore up pension and medical care funds for retired miners.

So that’s the context for all these complaints about the "war on coal." It’s quite true that many Democrats are pushing to shrink the coal industry. But the coal industry would be shrinking regardless. And Republicans aren't ready to face that reality.

Further reading

-- I should add: one potential lifeline for coal in a low-emissions world would be carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, in which CO2 emissions are captured at the power plant and buried underground. Both parties have supported funding for this technology.

Yet right now, this looks like a long-shot. A flagship coal CCS demonstration plant in Kemper, Mississippi is facing severe problems and overruns, and the technology won't catch on unless the cost can come down dramatically and the government puts a price on carbon (something the GOP has categorically rejected). So this is far from a sure thing.

-- 11 maps that explain energy in America