It was always obvious that Donald Trump would never be able to keep his promise – made both as candidate and president – that he would bring coal jobs back to battered mining communities.
Despite a long-standing campaign by the coal industry to blame the industry’s decline on President Obama’s environmental policies, the primary drivers of that decline have been economic, the most important being the low cost of natural gas.
Nonetheless, Trump made his pledge to coal country. And it found a receptive audience, particularly in Appalachia, where the industry’s collapse has resulted in severe economic hardship. Trump’s message could not have come at a worse time, giving false hope to laid-off coal miners, and the communities where they live and work, at a juncture when many of them had finally accepted the reality that their jobs weren’t coming back – and were embarking on the hard but necessary course of diversifying their local economies.
Here’s the hard truth after a full year of Trump’s presidency, starting with the jobs. Government data for 2017 shows that more states lost coal mine jobs than gained them; nationally, the number of these jobs increased by only a few hundred, and the total remains less than one-third the level of the mid-1980s.
Any new jobs that allow workers to support their families are meaningful. But there is a mismatch, to say the least, between Trump’s rhetoric and the economic reality on the ground. These coal mine job numbers don’t represent resurgence. Rather, they reflect what Trump and his enablers have denied: that it’s primarily markets, not federal policies, that affect the coal industry.
Trump made political theatre in 2017 out of his executive orders to roll back Obama administration rules that provided necessary updates to our nation’s clean water and clean air laws. With less fanfare, the Trump administration also attacked government efforts to protect the health and safety of people living in coal communities, and coal miners on the job. The labour department announced plans to make “less burdensome” a rule that reduces miners’ exposure to the coal dust that causes black lung disease, in spite of a recent surge in reported black lung cases. The Interior Department discontinued funding for a study of the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining in spite of research showing its devastating health impacts on people living in nearby communities.
Despite the rollback of these critical protections, in 2017 the US power sector continued its historic shift toward cleaner, cheaper energy sources. According to the Energy Information Administration, about 25 gigawatts (GW) of new utility-scale electric generating capacity was added to the grid in 2017, with fuel sources divided roughly equally between natural gas and renewables. None of the new capacity came from coal. In 2018, moreover, power-generating companies plan to close over 14 GW of coal capacity, which would be the second-largest annual total of coal power plant retirements in US history.
The US power sector will continue to transform itself. The critical test will be whether community leaders and policymakers in coal country transform their communities to keep pace. To do so they’ll need to work through the inertia encouraged by political double-talk to build more diversified, resilient economies. In passing this test with flying colours, the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Initiative, and the response to it, should be considered both an encouraging answer and a model.
Since 2015 the Commission has awarded $94 million in POWER funds to economic and workforce development projects that it’s estimated will create or retain 8,800 jobs in the Appalachian communities most impacted by coal’s decline. The Commission’s requests for proposals for POWER funding have been consistently over-subscribed by applicants proposing innovative ideas to build a more resilient economic future in the region, expanding industries like advanced manufacturing, health care, information technology, sustainable agriculture, and tourism and recreation. Congress has responded by appropriating higher funding levels to the Commission than it has received in decades, including for the current fiscal year – even after Trump’s budget requested the complete elimination of the regional agency.
Underlying the Commission’s implementation of the POWER Initiative is a belief that economic transition can best be supported by making strategic investments to develop the abundant assets of coal communities to the fullest, including the skills of workers and entrepreneurs, emerging industry clusters, critical institutions and infrastructure, and the region’s rich heritage and culture.
This kind of asset-building approach to economic transition is also embodied in legislation advancing in Congress called the RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731). (Disclosure: the writer of this column is registered as a lobbyist to advance this legislation in Congress.) RECLAIM invests $1 billion in the clean-up of abandoned coal mines and ensures that these job-creating reclamation projects are aligned with locally-driven economic development strategies in the communities at or near these mine sites. RECLAIM would turn coal community liabilities into opportunities for economic diversification.
The strong, bipartisan support for the POWER Initiative and the RECLAIM Act show Congress’s willingness to honour America’s commitments to coal communities and workers, while investing pragmatically in support of their changing economies. Perhaps more importantly, they show the eagerness of coal communities to prioritize real economic solutions over political grandstanding – and politicians who make promises that are impossible to keep.