The unifying theme of the Trump era is that all subtext must become text. Nothing can remain implied; it’s all got to be out in the open, obvious and crude.
Take President Trump’s promises to the US coal industry. His effort to prop up coal is well-documented, as is its futility. But just for punctuation, to really take it over the top, last week brought two bits of symbolism that any writer of fiction would reject as being too on the nose: a new photo on the Bureau of Land Management’s website and a new source of power for a Kentucky coal museum.
Is that coal on your website, or are you just glad to see me?
Sometime between Wednesday and Thursday last week, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management — which manages public lands responsible for 40 percent of US coal production — changed its homepage background from this:
That is … a gigantic wall of coal.
Specifically, it is Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle open-cut coal mine, the largest coal mine in the world, in Campbell County, Wyoming. (The picture is from Wikipedia.)
As far as I know, Andrew Freeman at Mashable was the first to write this up. A BLM spokesperson explained to Freeman that this was but one image among many that will rotate through the homepage. At least as of this writing, it’s back to anodyne recreation.
This doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, of course. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced that he will resume leasing the public’s land to coal companies at below-market prices, ripping off taxpayers and subsidizing carbon emissions, but that would be true even if the website were nothing but wholesome hikers and fishing bros.
Still, it’s pretty funny. Subtle, this crew is not.
Two great tastes that … wait, what?
Benham, Kentucky, in Harlan County, is an old coal camp town. Its heyday is long behind it. There are about 500 residents left. According to the Associated Press, Mayor Wanda Humphrey “says she is the mayor because no one else wants the job.”
But Benham does have one tourist attraction: the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, which “shows all aspects of a coal mine including the tipple and other mining activities.” (I had to Google “tipple” — turns out it’s the thing that loads coal into rail cars for transport out of the mine.) Visitors can have their picture taken next to a special two-ton block of coal or visit the personal collection of Loretta “Coal Miner’s Daughter” Lynn on the third floor.
Coal mining tour. Great museum showcasing the history of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky. Our friend and tour guide Michael Bradovich did a great job explaining the history of coal in Eastern Kentucky. They were closed for the day but since it was raining he took time out of his day to give us the VIP treatment. #museum #EasternKentucky #Coal #CoalMine #FriendsOfCoal
If visitors keep going and sneak up to the roof, they will find … a bunch of solar panels.
A company called Bluegrass Solar is in the midst of installing a roughly 60 kW system on the museum’s roof that, when completed, will provide power to both the museum and, through an agreement with museum owner Southeast Community and Technical College, the rest of the town’s municipal utility.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the museum’s power bill has been around $2,100 a month, “but this initiative is expected to save between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.”
"It is,” the college’s communications director conceded to a local TV station, "a little ironic."
The world is moving on while Trump pumps the brakes
As about 500 articles have explained in the past few months, the US coal industry is in decline and there’s not much Trump can do to stop it. Pressures are mounting from every side — not only concern over climate change but also low natural gas prices, stagnant demand, increasing competition from renewables, weak export markets, and, across the country, heated local opposition.
Amid that hailstorm, the Obama regulations that Trump has targeted — the supposed “war on coal” — are a nuisance. Even the coal barons don’t believe Trump’s rear-guard battle can bring back US coal jobs. Trump might slightly slow coal’s decline, but no amount of populist symbolism can change reality.
Meanwhile, US solar PV capacity grew by 97 percent in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The cost of a solar PV system dropped 20 percent.
In 2016, more solar power was brought online in the US than any other source of electricity. The industry installed 14,762 megawatts, more than any previous year and more than double the record set in 2015. Total installed capacity is expected to triple in the next five years.
And consider this: In 2016 alone, the US solar industry created more new jobs (51,000) than there are coal miners still working in the US (50,200). There are now 260,000 solar workers in the US — five times the number of coal miners.
Trump may see political advantage in pandering to the dwindling coal industry (and lying to its workers for populist theater). But even in the heart of coal country, even in Benham, Kentucky, people are beginning to understand that coal belongs in a museum and solar belongs on the roof.