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Demonizing Regulations Actually Hurts Coal Miners

A new study finds that being honest about the decline of coal can increase support for the training and relocation of coal miners.
The Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant outside Page, Arizona.

The Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant outside Page, Arizona.

Simplifying the story of the decline of coal—and blaming it entirely on environmental regulation—is harming coal miners in the United States.

That's the finding of a new study, which surveyed local policymakers in Colorado and Utah on their support for just transition policies. The researchers hoped to discover how to persuade politicians to protect the miners as the economy transitions away from coal—and found that how you talk about the issue affects the outcomes.

Oversimplifying the story of coal's decline did more harm than good, they found, while a candid conversation about the varied and complicated reasons for this trend bolstered support for policies to help coal miners assimilate into a new, cleaner society.

To date, much research has been devoted to the economics of this shift, but there's been less work examining the politics of the transition.

"I was interested in trying to figure out what kind of transition policies people found palatable," says Adam Mayer, an assistant professor in environmental policy at Colorado State University. "In the U.S., welfare state policies to assist workers that are displaced are not always politically popular."

Yet in the case of coal, these kinds of policies are becoming increasingly necessary. The decline of coal has been a complex, multi-decade phenomenon. Changes in the energy sector, including the lower price of natural gas and the rise of renewable technologies, alongside regulations designed to combat climate change, have caused heavy job losses in the coal industry. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the number of American miners dropped by 40 percent between 2008 and 2017.

In some ways, the idea of providing support to out-of-work miners should represent common ground for Democrats and Republicans. Coal miners are a sympathetic group for both parties: For Republicans because of how the GOP valorizes these workers, and for Democrats because of their support for social welfare programs.

In practice, these have been difficult waters for both parties to navigate. One respondent to Mayer's survey, who identified as a Republican, explained that he didn't support just transition policies because he believed the government should just remove environmental regulations; another Republican said that he opposed the welfare state in general.

The coal question has also led to missteps from Democrats. During her election campaign, Hillary Clinton famously enraged the coal mining community with a bungled attempt to describe how she'd bring about a just transition.

"I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country," Clinton said. "Because we're going to put a lot of coal mines and coal companies out of business." While Clinton might have meant that she was promising better jobs, what coal miners heard was more regulation and more suffering. At the same time, they heard Donald Trump as a candidate promising to lift regulations and bring back jobs.

Yet this framing—that environmental regulation alone is killing the coal industry—is hurting coal miners by creating the impression of a Golden Age to which the country could easily return, if only we put the right policies in place.

In his survey, Mayer found that telling policymakers that the demise of coal was due solely to environmental regulations reduced support for pension protections. On the other hand, being honest about the decline of coal by underlining the numerous factors that led to its decline, increased support for training and relocation of coal miners.

"There's a real danger in going to workers and communities and saying, 'That's totally the fault of the federal government—just roll back a couple of environmental regulations and everyone will have their jobs back and everything is going to be great here,'" Mayer says. "Instead of taking affirmative steps to transition, to think about alternative development pathways, ways to assist displaced workers, you might just hold out hope that you can roll back some of these federal regulations and the industry's going to come roaring back to life."

"If you acknowledge that coal's decline is really complicated—it's not the result of just one thing—it makes transition policies more palatable," he adds.

Of course, it's this simplistic narrative that Trump and his administration have adopted in their efforts to woo coal miners. "We have ended the war on American energy and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal," Trump said in his first State of the Union speech in 2018. Mayer's research suggests that such rhetoric could be harming the miners whom Trump claims to support, by framing the problem in a way that dissuades action at the level of local government.

That only exacerbates the other harms that the Trump administration has inflicted on coal communities, by rolling back the Clean Power Plan and working to eliminate the funding that former President Barack Obama had set aside for displaced workers.

"This symbolic action prevents a conversation in the U.S. about what is fair and just transition assistance for coal miners and coal mining communities; it takes the pressure off to do something that is actually helpful," says Michael Wara, a climate policy expert at Stanford University, on the rollback of the Clean Power Plan.

Trump says he "digs coal"—but, increasingly, it will be the people who actually dig coal from the ground who end up hurting as a result of how his administration has chosen to frame the issue.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.