Donald Trump came to Abingdon on Wednesday, ostensibly to talk about coal.
Politically, this made sense. Trump is pro-coal; Hillary Clinton has blurted out that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Both need Virginia.
Earlier this week, Trump delivered a much-touted economic speech in Detroit (also much-panned, even by conservatives who felt he mostly repeated lines that haven’t worked in previous elections, but that’s beside the point).
So here was Trump on the edge of Virginia’s coal country. Actual coal miners — some wearing miners’ helmets — were brought in to sit behind him on stage. And what did Trump do? He mostly did a good imitation of Casey at the bat — he struck out.
We understand that Trump is, shall we say, something of an unconventional candidate. But here’s why even Trump supporters should be disappointed by his Abingdon talk, and not just because he seemed so subdued that many critics delighted in calling it “low energy.”
This was a missed opportunity.
Trump could have elaborated on his Detroit speech and explained how his economic program would result in increased use of coal. He did not. Instead, he merely repeated the same bromides he’s said all along: “We’re going to put the miners back to work.”
Trump never said. We understand, again, that Trump is not a policy wonk. Still, he didn’t even attempt to explain his policies and make the case for why they’d work. Instead, he simply assured listeners that he’d be good for coal miners: “Their jobs have been taken away and we’re going to bring ‘em back folks. We’re going to bring ‘em back.”
His is a campaign based on faith, not facts.
Here are some inconvenient facts that will make it difficult for even a pro-coal president to revive the coal industry: Global coal consumption is declining. It fell last year by 1.8 percent — the largest decline since the mid-1960s, when such data started being collected. One of the reasons that the Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources had to declare bankruptcy was that it was banking on China being a big growth market for coal exports. China is, after all, the world’s biggest consumer of coal. But even China has cut its coal imports by 30 percent.
It’s easy to blame the Obama administration and environmentalists for waging a “war on coal.” Those charges are, well, true. But you can’t blame Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency for China buying less coal.
China’s coal cutbacks are partly economic, but they’re also in this context: Even China is transitioning away from coal and toward other energy sources. No American president can change that.
An American president could change our own environmental regulations to encourage coal — but it’s questionable whether even that would work. All across the country, companies are de-commissioning coal-fired plants and investing in other forms of energy, principally natural gas. There’s a prominent example of that in Giles County, where last year Celanese Corp. spent $150 million to convert the plant from coal to natural gas.
President Trump could rewrite every environmental regulation on the books, and he still couldn’t get Celanese to burn coal again. That company made a decision that will last for generations. That’s the problem the coal industry faces; the real “war on coal” is being lost in corporate board rooms as executive run the numbers.
Trump could have acknowledged this, and explained how his administration would discourage other companies from making the move away from coal — and how his economic program would revive the economy so much that companies will be eager to burn coal. He did not.
Trump’s calling card is that he’s a businessman. Here was a perfect opportunity for him to talk about the business realities of coal — and to make a business case for how he would revive coal, yet he didn’t. Democrats would say it’s because such a case can’t be made, but it seems strange that Trump didn’t even try.
Trump could have come to Abingdon and demonstrated that he has a commanding understanding of the economy — and has a unique program to revive what appears to be a dying industry. Instead, he offered only platitudes.
He also said some things that were simply, well, strange. Trump typically meanders, but his Abingdon speech had some odd turns even for him. “Clean coal,” he started to say at one point. Was he going to talk about how his administration would invest in research to develop “clean coal” — the idea that carbon can be captured from the emissions and put to other uses rather than burned off into the atmosphere? There is such research going on – some of it taking place in the Virginia coalfields, led by Virginia Tech researchers.
Instead, Trump never completed the thought: “You look at China, the amount of energy they’re using coal for. They’re not cleaning it. Believe me. … We have a very small planet compared to the rest of the universe.”
That sounds like something an environmentalist might say. What point was Trump trying to make? Does he think clean technology is worth investing in? Does he think clean coal is a fiction and we should burn coal anyway? We still don’t know. If he believes the former, this was once again a missed opportunity. Which candidate has actually called for increasing federal funding into clean coal research? Umm, Clinton. Trump could have one-upped her. He didn’t.
At another point, Trump made his usual pitch for American manufacturing, and invoked the name of two companies that make mining equipment, but in very different ways: “Not Komatsu,” he declared. “We have Caterpillar tractors.”
Komatsu, of course, is a Japanese company; Caterpillar is based in the United States. And yet … Komatsu has American manufacturing plants — in Tennessee, in South Carolina, in Illinois. Workers there might be curious why Trump is speaking against the products they make and, therefore, against their jobs.
The global economy is a complicated thing — in which some foreign companies provide American jobs, and some American jobs are dependent on the health of economies overseas. Trump gave no indication in Abingdon that he understands that.