Tom Eblen

Despite promises by Trump, GOP, here’s why a coal jobs revival isn’t coming

President-elect Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally May 5 in Charleston, W.Va., where he promised to put coal-miners back to work.
President-elect Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally May 5 in Charleston, W.Va., where he promised to put coal-miners back to work. AP

Of all the lies politicians have told struggling Eastern Kentuckians over the years, few are more cruel than the “war on coal” myth.

You know how it goes: President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations are to blame for the collapse of coal mining in Appalachia. If only “government overreach” were stopped, thousands of good-paying jobs would return to the mountains.

President-elect Donald Trump exploited this myth to rack up huge vote margins in Appalachia. He made big promises about restoring coal jobs. But, as with most of his big promises, he offered no realistic plans to fulfill them.

“We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Trump told a rally May 5 in Charleston, W.Va., where he mugged for cameras wearing a miner’s hard hat. “And for those miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off.”

With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress, they will have almost free rein to rewrite environmental laws. You can bet they will try to let coal companies blow up any mountain and pollute any stream they like. And you know what? It will make little difference. Few coal jobs are coming back to Eastern Kentucky. Not now, and probably not ever.

The “war on coal” politicians have been playing mountain people for suckers, and their success at it has cost Kentucky valuable time and energy that should have gone toward building a post-coal economy in the distressed region.

Republicans like to demonize regulations, but many of them were created because the coal industry has a long history of abusing Eastern Kentucky’s land, water and people. Other regulations are the result of the catastrophic threat of man-made climate change.

But the reason Appalachia’s coal economy isn’t coming back has a lot less to do with regulation than with free-market economics. Eastern Kentucky’s dwindling coal reserves are now more costly to mine than coal from other regions, making it less competitive.

An even bigger factor is cheap and abundant natural gas from hydraulic fracking. That is the main reason the percentage of American electricity generated by burning coal has fallen from one-half to one-third since 2008.

Republicans have chosen to ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus about man-made climate change. Trump, who dismisses global warming as “a hoax,” has vowed to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

But the rest of the world is not so willfully ignorant about climate change. Other countries are racing ahead of the United States to develop and use renewable energy and conservation technologies.

Renewable energy has become dramatically cheaper in recent years, and that is creating a lot of jobs. The solar industry now employs more than 208,000 people nationwide, according to the Solar Foundation. The American Wind Energy Association reports that its sector employs 88,000 people.

If Kentucky politicians were not so committed to clinging to the past — and protecting the financial interests of coal operators — more efforts would be made to recruit renewable-energy jobs to this state.

Recent declines in Eastern Kentucky coal employment have been dramatic: from 15,000 jobs in 2009 to fewer than 4,000 today. But they are only the tail end of a 35-year trend of falling coal employment in the region from a modern peak of 50,000 jobs in 1981. Most mining jobs have been lost to industry mechanization, not government regulation. Where was the political outrage?

Meanwhile, Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul are waging their own “war on coal miners” by refusing to act on legislation that would keep 12,500 retired union miners from having their pensions cut off at the end of the year. The most likely explanation for this inaction is the Republicans’ hatred of unions. Trump so far has been silent on the pension issue.

Trump “has made a lot of promises,” Floyd County Judge Executive Ben Hale told WEKU-FM this week. “We expect him to follow through on them and see if he can do something, as far as restoring that industry and helping our coal people get back to work.”

Eastern Kentuckians are waiting on a coal revival that isn’t coming.

The similar histories and challenges of Eastern Kentucky and South Wales are explored in a new film, After Coal.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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