Tom Eblen

On coal, Trump and his EPA chief play Kentuckians for suckers once again

Once again, the Trump administration is playing Kentuckians for suckers.

“The war against coal is over,” Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, declared Monday in Hazard, where he came to announce he would repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

This was no surprise. Pruitt has spent his career as a shameless tool of the fossil fuel industries. He denies the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change because it is bad for the businesses that pour money into his pockets.

Pruitt has been clear about his desire to put industry profits ahead of environmental protection and public health. He is doing all he can to neuter the agency he was appointed to lead.

Polls show most Americans want a cleaner environment and are worried about climate change. And why shouldn’t they be? The nation has been struck by three monster hurricanes this fall and wildfires are decimating California’s wine country. Yet, the Trump administration is reversing federal policy to actively ignore climate change.

Pruitt flew to Eastern Kentucky’s beleaguered coal country to find a friendly audience — carefully selected coal industry people, pro-coal community leaders and workers at a mining equipment company. He was accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who for years has promoted the “war on coal” to get people in the mountains to vote Republican.

Coal employment has been declining for decades because of industry mechanization. Where was McConnell’s concern for coal jobs then? Now, the coal industry is trying to scrape the last measure of profits from Appalachia’s land and people before the dwindling coal reserves there are exhausted.

Coal barons and their sponsored politicians have convinced a lot of Kentuckians that environmental regulations are mainly to blame for the industry’s rapid decline. Never mind that for more than a century coal has polluted Eastern Kentucky’s environment, damaged the health of its people and kept the poor region from diversifying its colonial-style economy.

Trump carried Appalachia by making wild promises he can never keep about putting tens of thousands of coal miners back to work. So far, the results have been negligible — and they will continue to be.

Trump and his appointees can change government policy, but they can’t change the laws of economics or take America back to the 1940s, or even the 1980s, when coal was king. Anyone who thinks they can is a sucker.

Coal is under attack, not so much by sensible environmental regulation as by human progress and modern economics in the form of cheap natural gas and increasingly viable alternative energy sources.

Even if Pruitt succeeds in repealing the Clean Power Plan despite legal challenges, it won’t make much difference. The utility industry is already moving on to the future; that’s what smart business people do.

As president, Trump’s budget proposed abolishing the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has done more than any other federal agency to bolster the region’s economy for decades. (It’s important to remember that even when coal was booming, Eastern Kentucky was a poor region in need of public assistance.)

Then Trump backed a Republican health care plan that would have cost thousands of Eastern Kentuckians their health insurance coverage and eliminated thousands of health care jobs in the region.

Trump’s Interior Department in August ordered the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to stop a long-awaited study of health risks for people who live near Appalachian surface mines. The last thing the coal industry wants is answers to persistent questions about high cancer rates and other persistent health problems in the coalfields.

Then the U.S. Labor Department appointed a new head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration who has no experience with mine safety. This at a time when mining accidents and deaths are on the rise.

The “war on coal” — in other words, regulation of the coal industry — may be over. But Trump and his administration have clearly declared war on coal country and the people who live there, most of whom voted for him.

How long will Kentuckians continue to be suckers?

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen