Froma Harrop: Coal get dug under

Summary: How far we have come from the empty vow four years ago to bring back "beautiful, clean coal." Closing that circle of false hope could actually be a good thing for coal country. Coal country can be saved. Coal cannot.

Froma Harrop Commentary

As we stumble through the twilight of the Trump era, let us devote a moment to an actual issue. Let us briefly visit Donald Trump's vow to save the coal industry — notable because it figured prominently in his successful 2016 campaign. His "Trump Digs Coal" sign at a rally showcasing miners in hard hats signaled to blue-collar voters that he was on their side.
Did he Make Anthracite Great Again? He did not. Trump leaves office with the coal industry in collapse. Over his four years, America saw a 24 percent drop in average quarterly coal mining jobs. In 2019 alone, more than eight coal companies filed for bankruptcy, including the industry giant Murray Energy.
Yet in 2018, Trump held an event in Charleston, West Virginia, where he declared: "We are back. The coal industry is back." And so was his chorus line of miners, this time holding signs that read, "Promises Made. Promises Kept."
Alvin Long, a worker at the now-closed Kayenta mine in northeast Arizona, offered a different take. "All of his promises went down the drain," he said. He voted for Trump in 2016.
There was no saving the coal industry. Cleaner and cheaper natural gas has replaced coal. And now, even-cleaner renewable energy is challenging natural gas. Last year, for the first time, wind, solar and other renewable energy started producing more electricity than coal.
It was not Trump's fault that coal was dying. It was his fault that he lied about being able to save it and then lied that he had. Rather than helping transition coal workers into different lines of work, Trump fed them delusional promises.
One of Trump's biggest donors was Murray Energy owner Bob Murray. He called Barack Obama's time in office "eight years of pure hell." Trump hopped to checking off Murray's wish list, undoing Obama's environmental legacy. The ban on dumping mining waste in streams went out the window. A rule that would have stopped coal-burning plants from pouring toxic metals into rivers was delayed. Trump discarded an Obama-era rule that required power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and killed Congress' effort to extend clean energy tax credits. Tighter regulations on worker safety got tossed.

But what Murray really wanted was a government bailout. Trump tried to provide one by rigging the market.
He pushed a crazy plan to force utility companies to buy electricity from money-losing coal plants. In the name of securing electric power, the administration wanted to guarantee financial returns for power plants that could store 90 days of fuel on-site. Competing natural gas plants couldn't participate because, you see, they feed fuel to the facilities by pipeline. Regulators gave it a thumbs-down.
Trump wasn't all chocolate and flowers for coal producers. As domestic consumption plunged, coal companies saw opportunity in demand from Asia, especially China. They did some exporting, but then Trump launched his trade war. Then he ignored the COVID-19 crisis, which drained demand for energy.
Coal executives, meanwhile, used a couple of fat years to enrich themselves rather than cushion their businesses. Windfalls that could have gone into building up cash reserves were quickly sent out to investors in the form of dividends and buybacks. And so, when hard times came, the cupboards were bare.
Simply put, coal is over. "There was no policy Trump could have implemented that would have changed this situation with coal," historian Peter Shulman, author of "Coal and Empire," said.
How far we have come from the empty vow four years ago to bring back "beautiful, clean coal." Closing that circle of false hope could actually be a good thing for coal country. Coal country can be saved. Coal cannot.

Froma Harrop can be reached at or on Twitter @FromaHarrop.

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