This Land: Scott Pruitt Declares End To A War That Never Was

President Trump and his minions just can’t stop using coal miners as props. Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, trotted them out in a recent commentary in The Washington Times.

“When President Trump came to EPA to sign an executive order ending the ‘war on coal,’ he was flanked by Pennsylvania coal miners,” Pruitt wrote. “Hosting coal miners at EPA headquarters in Washington served as a stark contrast to the past administration, to be sure.”

Those coal miners are bound to be disappointed if they believe Pruitt’s next line: “President Trump’s action was a moment in which a promise became an economic reality.”

Pruitt would have coal miners and their families believe so many false things.

He would have them believe that President Obama waged a war on coal that devastated the industry. Obama merely made more of an effort than past presidents to enforce the laws passed by Congress to protect the nation’s environment.

While some of Obama’s policies might have contributed at the margins to the recent collapse of the coal economy in places like West Virginia, most of it was due to market changes — mainly the drop in natural gas prices, but also rising demand for renewable energy — and the fact that the cheap, easy seams of coal in Central Appalachia have been all but mined out.

Pruitt would also have mining communities believe that Trump has changed “economic reality” for them by signing his executive order.

That is nonsense. That executive order resulted in no immediate actions, but only began lengthy and complicated regulatory processes that might eventually make it easier for coal and power companies to pollute the air and water. While that may enhance these companies’ profits, it will not put a single miner back to work — not today, and not in the future.

As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out in a Washington Post commentary the day after Pruitt’s deceptive piece, the decline in coal mining jobs will continue regardless of any actions Trump takes.

“There are now about 65,000 [coal mining] jobs left,” Bloomberg wrote. “That number will continue to fall in the years ahead, as technological advancements continue to displace workers and as cleaner and cheaper forms of energy continue to displace the industry itself.”

But, most hurtfully, Pruitt would have miners and their families believe that the false promise of resurrecting a dying coal industry is their best chance for a prosperous future.

The fact is that coal has never brought long-term prosperity to those who mined it or to those who live near where it is mined. Sure, miners had good-paying jobs — when they had them. Layoffs have always been a fact of life for coal miners. And the cost of that temporary prosperity is extraordinarily high. Miners risk their lives and their health every day. A black lung resurgence is stealing the life’s breath from a whole new generation of miners. And disasters like Upper Big Branch remain far too common.

In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review a few years back, my friend Ken Ward Jr. talked about how coal miners never used to see coal as their own children’s future:

Way back when [Gazette photographer] Jim Noelker and I used to ride around and talk to people in the coal fields, we never found one that wanted their kid to be a coal miner. They always said, “I’m doing this terrible work so that my kid can go to college.” Now, the politicians have sold this idea that coal is their only way of life, and that they need to fight to make sure their kids can do that. It’s a complete reversal, and that notion is kind of maddening.

Bloomberg echoes that sentiment in his commentary: “Politicians who ignore these market realities and make promises to coal communities they can’t keep are engaged in something worse than a con. They are telling those communities, in effect: The best hope they have, and that their children have, is to be trapped in a dying industry that will poison them.”

This is not the best hope for the people of Appalachia. Coal is America’s past, and Appalachia’s. The sooner the people of Appalachia begin to figure out that the path to a truly prosperous doesn’t include coal, 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.