Donald Trump’s new administration is coming together — though the details have been somewhat buried in the news by Trump’s avalanche of stupid tweets belittling his “enemies,” praising Vladimir Putin and making boastful declarations about how he will stop North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
The Cabinet Trump is assembling doesn’t look good for anyone except the billionaire class, but it looks especially bad for anyone who cares about the environment, opposes the many pipelines proposed to cut through West Virginia — and even for those hoping he fulfills his promise to bring back coal.
Extractive industries are getting important places at the table, certainly. ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson has been nominated to serve as secretary of the State Department and friends of oil and gas like Rick Perry and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt have been nominated to lead the Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Perry sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the Dakota Access pipeline that was recently denied a key permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More than half the donations given to Pruitt’s super PAC, Liberty 2.0, came from the energy sector, mostly oil and gas.
But those with direct ties to coal are harder to find, and they generally aren’t being appointed to positions directly involving regulation of the coal industry.
Venture capitalist Wilbur Ross has been nominated to lead the Commerce Department. He was the largest shareholder in the Anker Coal Group, which owned the Sago Mine, when that mine blew up in 2001, killing 12 miners and critically injuring another. And U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Interior, has been a coal industry favorite, racking up $345,000 in campaign donations. Elaine Chao, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, has ties to coal through her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But its’s clear that, among energy-sector appointees, those with oil and gas interests at heart will be in far more prominent roles to actually impact policy.
This will be horrible news for the environment, as these appointees will doubtless try to roll back protective EPA regulations and other Obama-era initiatives that protected the water and air from pollution, blocked sensitive areas from oil and gas leasing, and tried to rein in carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.
This influence will also likely make it harder to stop the natural gas pipelines proposed to take Marcellus shale gas from northern West Virginia to East Coast and export markets as they work to smooth even the minor regulatory speed bumps in place.
But it is also bad news for those who believed Trump when he said he would bring back coal jobs. The coal economy — especially the Appalachian coal economy — hasn’t just been battered by Obama’s EPA. Despite all the misleading rhetoric from the coal lobby, a big part of coal’s collapse is due to competition from natural gas thanks to the fracking boom.
If Trump’s oil and gas picks make it easier for that boom to continue, coal will continue to suffer. Appalachian coal is also in competition with Wyoming basin coal and, increasingly, from high-sulfur reserves in Illinois that have become usable again thanks to pollution-control investments by power companies.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, Appalachian coal is nearly mined out. The best, thickest seams are gone, and the thin seams that are left require moving a lot more dirt to recover a lot less coal. Trump can’t do anything to change that.
Even the conservative Washington Times recognizes that Trump’s coal promises will be nearly impossible to keep — and that his emphasis on oil and gas production could hurt coal even more.
“He’s said the development of other resources, such as shale oil or shale gas, and the potential the industry sees there will also be supported by his administration. Those are competing sectors, competing products,” Edgar van der Meer, an analyst with the energy market research firm NRG Expert, told The Washington Times. “There are definitely more market forces at play that will have an impact on the coal sector regardless of any stimulus or any favoring of the sector in the Trump administration.”
Some hoped that natural gas would boost West Virginia’s economy. That promise has fizzled, though, and the proposed pipelines won’t change that.
President Trump will be good news for the fossil fuel industry, but the friendliest of administrations won’t be able to bring back Appalachian coal. The sooner public officials, unemployed miners and everyone else realizes that, the better.
Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.