Predictably using coal miners as props, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday seeking to gut President Obama’s climate change initiatives and ending a moratorium on leasing federal land for coal mining. He’s already undone several coal-related pollution regulations. At the climate change signing ceremony, he once more promised his actions would bring back thousands of coal jobs.
They will not.
Don’t believe me? What about Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy. He said he told Trump to dial back his promises about coal jobs. “I suggested that he temper his expectations,” Murray said. “Those are my exact words. He can’t bring them back.”
Murray is right. For instance, one of the biggest regulations Trump is attempting to undo is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to significantly reduce carbon emissions by utilities. Gutting that regulation as Trump wants to do should bring miners back to work in droves, right?
As James Van Nostrand, professor of law and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West University College of Law, told Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward Jr., “The constant narrative about the ‘war on coal’ and the alleged devastating impact of EPA’s regulations on West Virginia’s coal industry will now be exposed for its inherent speciousness. Defunding or dismantling the EPA and repealing its regulations is not going to bring the coal industry back.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, even without the Clean Power Plan, coal production in Appalachia is predicted to fall from current levels by 50 million tons by 2040. Appalachian coal is on an irreversible downward trajectory that has very little to do with EPA regulations.
As we’ve discussed previously, there are a multitude of reasons for the Appalachian coal decline, everything from the fracking boom dramatically lowering the price of natural gas to the fact that many coal-fired plants have been fitted with scrubbers that let them burn cheaper Midwestern high-sulfur coal again.
But perhaps the main reason is this: Almost all of the cheap, easy coal in Appalachia has already been mined. What’s left is in thin, inaccessible seams that are increasingly expensive to mine, leading inevitably to decreased productivity. There is absolutely nothing Trump can do to change that fact.
But even if repealing the Clean Power Plan would magically bring back the Appalachian coal industry, it would take more than an executive order to make that happen. As it is, the plan is wrapped up in complicated legal proceedings that could end up limiting the administration’s options.
But even if the court cases go Trump’s way, the regulatory process is long and complex. It took years for Obama to shepherd the Clean Power Plan through that process, and it will take years for Trump to undo it — with environmentalists and others fighting every step of the way.
Trump’s other actions will also do little to increase coal production. Lifting the moratorium on federal coal leasing, for instance, won’t do anything for production because coal companies already have about 20 years of recoverable reserves under lease, according to the Department of the Interior.
Trump’s repeated empty promises are cruel. As divorced as he is from policy details and reality, it’s hard to say whether he believes them, but they are cruel nonetheless. There are thousands of jobless miners in central Appalachia. The collapse of the coal industry has caused genuine hardship, both economic and otherwise, throughout the region.
No matter what he says, Trump has no magic wand that will suddenly, or ever, reverse decades-long trends. Coal is dying in Appalachia, and the most coal-friendly administration imaginable cannot stop the decline.
That is the simple and undeniable truth. Clinging to Trump’s false hope will only bring more disappointment.
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.