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Would a Trump Presidency Really Help Our Coal Industry?

Coal mining jobs have been in decline since the 1980s. Is there reason to think Donald Trump could resuscitate a dying industry?
Smoke billows from a coal-powered steel plant in Pennsylvania.

Smoke billows from a coal-powered steel plant in Pennsylvania.

If elected president, Donald Trump plans to remove heads of federal agencies who were appointed to the federal government by President Barack Obama, according to a new report by Reuters. Amid fears that Obama could convert the officials to civil servants — a position known for near ironclad job security — before he leaves office, Trump may also push Congress for new laws to weaken those protections.

Doing so wouldn’t just affect individual government officials; it could threaten the existence of the very agencies themselves—especially the Environmental Protection Agency.

A significant part of Trump’s sweeping overhaul could involve the near-entire dismantling of the EPA’s budget, which has over 15,000 employees. (The EPA’s administrator, Gina McCarthy, was appointed by Obama in 2013.) This isn’t the first time that Trump has criticized the EPA’s “totalitarian tactics” or threatened to eliminate the federal agency entirely.

Notably, Trump’s 100-day action plan to revitalize the country’s energy sector involves saving America’s decaying coal industry. In the past, Trump has been quick to blame a nationwide push toward renewable energy as part of “Obama’s war on coal” and “Hillary Clinton’s extremist agenda.” In reality, though, the coal industry has been decaying for more than two decades now.

Coal mining jobs actually peaked in the 1980s and have been disappearing quite steadily ever since, with employment all but gone in once-thriving mining states. In West Virginia, for example, where Trump also vowed last month to revive coal mining, myriad reports have shown the industry has littlechance of rebounding. (Trump ended up garnering an endorsement from the West Virginia Coal Association.)

As Pacific Standard has reported before:

Last July, Alliant Energy’s announcement to phase-out coal from six of its Iowa-based plants marked the 200th coal plant to shut down in the U.S. as well, a 40 percent decrease in coal plants since 2010. Most recently, Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the country, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, following reports that the company had postponed a $90 million interest payment in December, and experienced a $2 billion third-quarter net loss last November. Several other huge coal mining companies, including Walter Energy, Alpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal have also filed for bankruptcy.

Trump’s 100-day energy plan would also lift moratoriums on energy production in federal areas. The Obama administration did indeed place a federal moratorium on all new coal mining leases on public lands across the country in June—but but only out of concern from environmentalists, Congress, and the Department of the Interior that coal companies have spent 30 years cheating taxpayers out of $30 billion in royalties.

And as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan — also spearheaded by Obama — inches ever closer to a hearing before the Supreme Court, some opponents of the policy hope Trump will repeal it should he win the election. If passed, the law seeks to cut emissions from coal-fired electric power plants within the next 14 years by 32 percent below 2005 levels. The Clean Power Plan could also cut air pollution by 25 percent in 2030, and save the U.S. $55 to $93 billion in health costs stemming from pollution-related premature deaths and child asthma attacks.

Renewable energy, on the other hand, is notably absent from Trump’s 100-day energy plan. It is only mentioned once:

We will get the bureaucracy out of the way of innovation, so we can pursue all forms of energy. This includes renewable energies and the technologies of the future. It includes nuclear, wind and solar energy — but not to the exclusion of other energy. The government should not pick winners and losers. Instead, it should remove obstacles to exploration.

Wind and solar power aren’t exactly the “obstacles” in America’s energy sector that Trump would like to believe they are. After all, wind and solar power are responsible for more than two-thirds of the electricity generated on the country’s grid last year, the Associated Press reported in May. Power plants — fueled not by coal, but by natural gas — supplied the rest. Last year, the net electricity generation from natural gas also briefly surpassed coal for the first time since 1973.

Coal mining jobs may be on a swift decline, but the solar energy workforce alone is also growing 12 times faster than the rest of the country’s economy, in large part to initiatives under Obama’s administration like the Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative and the SunShot Initiative. Trump has criticized the price of solar power before, but, for the first time, solar energy is nearly as cheap as electricity.

Many of the EPA’s policies — and not just those regarding coal emissions — pit directly against Trump’s own election. As outlined in his 100-day energy action plan, Trump hopes to repeal both Obama’s extensive Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule, the latter of which places certain waterways likes rivers and marshes under EPA jurisdiction. His campaign also includes renewing the permit application for the Keystone pipeline and canceling the U.S.’s involvement in the Paris Agreement altogether.