In May, President-elect Donald Trump stood on the stage at the Charleston Civic Center in West Virginia, put on a miners helmet and pretended to shovel coal.
“If I win we’re going to bring those miners back,” Trump said at the rally. “…These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete … we’re going to take that all off the table, folks.”
With Trump’s election and Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, many in Kentucky are now waiting to cash in on the Republican promise of more coal jobs.
U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though, wasn’t making any promises Friday.
“We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”
The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.
“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”
Experts agree that environmental regulations placed on the coal industry contributed to a rapid decline of the coal industry over the past few years, but there have been other, more important economic factors at play.
“The issues, particularly in the eastern part of Kentucky, are more than the increase of regulations,” said Ken Troske, Sturgill Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky.
One of those issues is a decrease in demand for coal.
Carter said the low price of natural gas contributes to the lack of demand for coal. As the energy industry builds new power plants, it’s more likely to build plants that run on natural gas because the price isn’t as high.
“We don’t mind losing to natural gas because it’s the cheapest source,” Carter said.
But natural gas may not always be the cheapest source and if that’s the case, he wants it to be economically feasible for companies to build coal-fired power plants.
Carter said the only way that can happen is if Trump eliminates Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that requires new coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture technology. The technology makes the construction of coal plants more expensive, leaving companies likely to build plants that rely on natural gas instead.
“We will need to end or do away with the Clean Power Plan that prohibits the building of a coal power plant anywhere in the country,” Carter said.
But even if demand for cheaper coal returns, many of the jobs lost over the past decade aren’t likely to be restored, particularly in Eastern Kentucky.
6,254 The number of coal jobs remaining in Kentucky. 3,653 are in Eastern Kentucky and 2,601 are in Western Kentucky.
Despite an uptick in coal production between July and September, miners still lost jobs. As of Oct. 1, only 6,254 Kentuckians were still employed by the coal industry, less than half the number in 2011.
“I put the range of possibilities at somewhere to a continuing small decline to a small growth,” Troske said. “…We are not going to recover the coal jobs we’ve seen in the state lost in the last decade.”
The best chance for growth in the Kentucky coal industry is in the western coalfields, where coal is cheaper to mine and new technologies have made burning the high sulfur coal found in the region less of an environmental hazard. Most of the inexpensive-to-reach coal in Eastern Kentucky has already been mined.
So how will Trump and McConnell help ailing communities where high-paying coal jobs have evaporated?
McConnell’s solution isn’t a stimulus plan, although he expects to continue working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that funnels federal money to economically struggling coal communities.
“A government spending program is not likely to solve the fundamental problem of growth,” McConnell said. “…I support the effort to help these coal counties wherever we can but that isn’t going to replace whatever was there when we had a vibrant coal industry.”