Four years ago today, then-candidate Donald Trump campaigned in Abingdon. With coal miners in hard hats behind him, many holding signs that read “Trump Digs Coal,” Trump promised to revive the Appalachian coalfields if he became president.
“We are going to put the miners back to work,” he declared.
This was hardly a one-time promise. Earlier in the 2016 campaign, Trump appeared in Radford where he made a similar vow. “We’re going to bring back King Coal,” Trump declared that March. “We’re going to bring it back.”
So how has that worked out?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production in 2016 was 728.4 million tons. Last year it was 705.3 million tons.
Coal has not come back under Trump. It’s continued to decline. The figures for 2020 are only available through the first quarter — 149.1 million tons. That’s down from 173.2 million tons in the first quarter of 2016 — a drop of 16%.
Not surprisingly, the number of mining jobs has gone down with production. When Trump spoke that day in Abingdon, the U.S. had 48,900 coal-mining jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 62,800 the year before and down from 73,200 the year before that and down from 88,600 in 2011 – the highest number of coal-mining jobs under the Obama administration.
Now, the same agency says there only about 43,800 coal-mining jobs. So not only have coal-mining jobs gone down under Trump, there were twice as many coal-mining jobs under Barack Obama.
So did Trump break a campaign promise to bring back coal? No — because it wasn’t a promise he had the power to keep anyway. Only voters are to blame for believing him in the first place — in the face of clear evidence that Trump could never do what he was telling them he would.
It’s certainly true that the Obama administration waged a “war on coal” with environmental regulations that hastened the demise of coal. But that wasn’t the only problem coal faced in 2016. That was clear to some then; it should be clearer to others now. Trump has rolled back environmental regulations, yet coal is still going down. Why? Because the real “war on coal” is now being waged by something that conservatives have traditionally celebrated — the free market. Other forms of energy are now cheaper — or seen as cheaper bets over the long haul. Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia asked Appalachian Power to build more coal plants; the utility said no —that coal plants simply are not a good investment when you look out over a 40-year time horizon. Furthermore, utilities are shutting down coal plants and switching to other forms of energy. More coal-fired plants have been retired under Trump than were retired under Obama’s second term when the transition away from coal was picking up speed.
When Trump spoke that day in Abingdon in 2016, natural gas had just surpassed coal as the biggest source of energy for electrical production in the U.S. Since then, those trend lines have continued — with natural gas rising (much to the chagrin of pipeline opponents) and coal dropping. Last year, natural gas accounted for 38.4% of U.S. electricity, while coal was down to just 23.4% — with nuclear at 19.7% and renewables up to 17.5%. In the first quarter of 2020, coal fell behind them all, and now is in fourth place, at just 19%.
There are things that government can do hasten that transition — such as the clean energy laws that Virginia adopted this year — but nothing that it can do to halt the conversion. That’s why Trump was wrong to promise he’d bring back coal, and voters were wrong to believe him.
The question that we’ve posed before — and pose again today — is what happens to those communities whose economies were once based on coal? That’s where the so-called Green New Deal and its variants (such as Virginia’s Clean Economy Act) come up short.
Green New Deal advocates are right in one sense: Green energy will create jobs, because it already has. Even in 2016, renewables employed more people than fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Now, that gap is only growing. A study last year found that renewable jobs now outnumber fossil fuel jobs (of which coal is only a part) by 3-to-1. As Forbes magazine — hardly a leftist publication — put it, “renewable energy jobs are booming across America, creating stable and high-wage employment for blue-collar workers.” In a different political universe, President Trump would be taking credit for this growth in green energy jobs — instead of musing about “windmill cancer.”
The problem is that the coal jobs disappearing are in specific geographical locations while the renewable energy jobs replacing them are all over. There are vague promises in the Virginia legislation — and the proposed national legislation — to encourage renewable energy jobs in former coal country, but those aren’t promises that should be trusted because they are more suggestions than actual action plans.
Here is where coal country (which extends further than coal-mining counties, because there are, or were, coal-related businesses even in Roanoke) hasn’t been well-served by either political party. Democrats don’t see enough votes in rural America to pay much attention to it. The real solutions, though, would require a lot more government action than Republicans are comfortable with. We hear controversy over proposals to “defund the police” but Trump originally wanted to defund the main federal economic development agencies serving Appalachia. How, exactly, was that supposed to make Appalachia great again? Those agencies — such as the Appalachian Regional Commission — may be imperfect entities, but they are surely better than nothing at all.
The unfortunate reality: Trump doesn’t have a plan to build a new economy in coal country. And neither does Joe Biden. Ironically, the one candidate in recent years who did put forward such a plan was Hillary Clinton. She proposed a $30 billion plan to build a new economy in former coal country. She never really campaigned on it, and her plan came under fire from some on the left for being too solicitous of a Republican-voting part of the country. (Among other things, it called for eliminating the capital gains tax on long-term investments in coal communities). The irony is that coal country wound up with the worst of both worlds — coal has declined under Trump just as it would have under Clinton, but now there’s no plan at all.
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