It was a pathetic scene, coal miners flanking President Donald Trump as he signed an order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. Trump’s imagineers have turned coal miners into a Madison Avenue version of the besieged American working man, the pretty wrapping on a toxic package of environmental delinquency.
This event, held tragically at the Environmental Protection Agency, was almost as celebratory as the one in which Trump called for ditching a rule that would have stopped coal companies from dumping waste in streams. Some waters in coal country are so polluted they run orange.
One forgets that there are only about 80,000 coal mining jobs left in America, and nearly 40 percent of them don’t involve the dangerous work of going underground. The solar power industry employs twice as many people.
Anyhow, Trump insists that his rollback of Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan will do two things — make the U.S. energy-independent and “put our miners back to work” — to which informed observers respond, “Has already happened” and “Won’t happen.”
Thanks to shale oil and natural gas production, U.S. imports of oil have shrunk from 65 percent in 2005 to around 25 percent today. Add in the rapid growth in wind and solar power and America has already approached energy independence, and that occurred under Obama.
As for mining jobs, they’re not coming back, certainly not in numbers that would remotely merit what America and its mining regions give up in pursuit of coal. The demand for coal has plummeted as cleaner, cheaper natural gas replaces it.
Weakened regulations may cause some utilities to delay switching out of coal. Certainly, none is going back. Even companies that did not support the Clean Power Plan are staying the course.
One was Entergy, a large supplier of power in the South. CEO Leo Denault told the media that though he objected to the Obama agenda, “The potential of it rolling back does not change our commitment to being environmentally responsible.”
Many states have their own mandates for increasing use of renewable energy. They’re not backing down, either.
Automation, meanwhile, continues as a major threat to coal jobs. Even mountaintop removal — the environmental obscenity of shearing off mountains to get at coal — provides little employment. Explosives do the blasting. Earth-moving machines remove the coal and debris.
Mountaintop removal has leveled majestic landscapes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. One can clean up a polluted river, but these mountains are gone forever.
Tossing environmental protections into a giant dumpster is both a lazy and a counterproductive way to spur economic development. Note that some of our fiercest competitors in manufacturing, such as Germany, have environmental laws that match or exceed ours.
Earlier in American history, coal powered the nation. To provide this energy, coal country gave and gave. There was a nobility to the grueling work of digging for coal — and to the people who performed it.
But America has moved on. Coal mining employment has plummeted, and the decline in demand for coal is irreversible. Even industry leaders concede that. Thus, the tiny Trump base of coal workers finds itself in the undignified position of trying to push a product on a nation that no longer wants it.
At the same time, the Trump administration pursues plans to strip them of coverage for black lung disease. And his budget would defund a program to spur economic development in Appalachia — a program that could open opportunities for 21st-century employment.
Despite all this, Trump remains coal country’s guy. Let others explain. Most of America looks on the sad scene, scratching its head and wondering what’s in it for the miners.
Froma Harrop, a past president of the Association of Opinion Journalists, writes a bi-weekly column for Creators Syndicate.
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