In the early days of his administration, President Trump has spent a lot of time focusing on the plight of America’s coal miners. In May 2016, Trump promised to create new jobs for coal miners. He told an audience that “We’re going to get those miners back to work … the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.” In February 2017, Trump signed a rollback on Obama-era environmental protections prohibiting the dumping of coal mining waste in waterways. In March, he lifted an Obama-era ban on leasing public lands to coal mining companies. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, Trump told attendees, “Miners are going back to work. Miners are going back to work, folks. Sorry to tell you that, but they’re going back to work. We have begun a historic program to reduce the regulations that are crushing our economy.”
Experts on coal in the public and private sector agree that the coal industry in America is dying. And there’s nothing President Trump can do about it. According to Brad Plumer at Vox, the repeal of the waste dumping ban would create a whopping 124 jobs. Since 2009, the coal mining industry has lost over 30,000 jobs, lowering the total number of coal miners to around 50,000. As a recent Washington Post analysis explained, Arby’s employees more people than the coal mining industry. There are now twice as many jobs in solar energy as coal. As Plumer points out, analysts agree that the trends that have shrunk America’s coal mining population are irreversible. First, automation has increasingly replaced workers. Second, the rise of cheap natural gas industry from fracking has undercut the market for coal. Third, Obama-era environmental regulations have made the operation of coal plants more costly and utilities have switched to natural gas or renewables. If coal is on its way out, then why does Trump and his administration fixate on this dying industry?
The decline of the coal industry mirrors Trump’s view of America, a once great business, now in decline. Coal mining has been a part of American life since the early 1800s. From the late 19th century until the mid-twentieth century, coal was the largest source of power in the United States. Steam produced by coal drove the engines of locomotives. Many of the first railroad companies linked cities to coal mining areas. Coal helped fuel the Industrial Revolution in America. It powered American naval vessels as they patrolled the seas during the Spanish American War and when President Theodore Roosevelt sent the American navy on an around the world tour from 1907-1909. With the rise of oil in the 1950s, however, coal began to decline in importance. As the chart below shows, thanks to oil and the circumstances discussed above, employment in the US coal industry has continued to fall.
Trump’s devotion to reviving this dying industry speaks to what he considers the marker of greatness: business success. The way to restore American greatness, he suggests, comes from cutting regulations and leasing out land. When the coal business profits, so does America. From a real estate developer who inherited millions of dollars, this view is certainly understandable. Trump’s personal markers of success have always been his deals and his brand. If your name is the on the building, you must be doing something right. If newspapers and television shows are talking about you, then you must be doing great. Nowhere in his discussion are other markers of what might constitute American greatness. What about protecting America’s natural resources? What about making sure all Americans have access to healthcare? How about ensuring that no American child goes hungry at school and has access to a healthy lunch? Surely, the president of the United States can come up with some measures of American greatness that aren’t about who has the biggest bank account or the largest profit margin.
While Trump may have pledged to revive the coal industry (and by-proxy the United States), but the truth is clear. The coal industry is dying and no amount of effort can make coal great again.