Energy & Environment

Putting coal profits ahead of coal miners

Coal miners are the political darlings of the Trump era. Promises to bring back their jobs draw raucous applause at President Trump’s rallies. Trump’s budget director vows to protect them from paying for public broadcasting.

They’ve become political shorthand for white working-class voters, even as they’re outnumbered by solar workers nearly four to one.

The notion that any president can bring back coal jobs has been repeatedly debunked. Coal employment has been declining since the 1920s, first due to mining technology and now as coal is outcompeted by natural gas and renewables.

Markets, not carbon regulations, drive those shifts.

The futility of the coal jobs slogans was clear well before the election. But as policies emerge from the smokescreen of campaign politics, a more troublesome pattern is taking shape.

Beyond empty slogans, Republican policies are putting the profits and pollution of corporations ahead of the jobs and well-being of coal miners. Such policies will not only fail to increase the quantity of mining jobs, but could worsen their quality as well.

{mosads}Republican policies follow the myth that protections for workers and the environment are holding back coal. That might be true, if those protections were making coal uncompetitive by driving up its price or restricting its supply.


In fact, coal struggles despite its cheapness and abundance. Here in Texas, most coal power plants buy their coal from enormous mines in Wyoming, at prices near half a cent per pound.

Perhaps laxer regulations could lower that price a bit further. But they wouldn’t cut the cost of railroading it a thousand miles, storing it in stockpiles, pulverizing it, burning it, treating the exhaust, cooling the water and disposing of the wastes.

Even if coal were free, it would struggle to compete with energy pumped through pipelines or arriving on sunshine and breezes.

Data show coal demand to be insensitive to coal prices but highly sensitive to the price of natural gas. Natural gas power plants, unlike coal ones, spend most of their money on fuel.

That’s why gas prices, not coal prices, drive shifts between the fuels. Without a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)-style ban on fracking, there’s little Congress can do to tilt the playing field toward coal.

Furthermore, since coal prices don’t sway wholesale electricity prices, cheaper coal would do little to slow the growth of wind and solar.

Easing coal regulations might cut the costs of coal mining. That could temporarily boost profits for mine owners. But it won’t reverse diminishing demand for coal. Neither will opening more land to coal mining, especially as the industry digs out from unusually large stockpiles.

Yet Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reviewing whether to reopen federal lands to new mining leases.

Republicans voted to block President Obama’s Stream Protection Rule that would have protected water quality in coal mining communities. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) parroted the National Mining Association’s absurd claim that the rule “could have wiped out one-third of American coal mining jobs.”

And, of course, coal miners would fare far worse than executives under Ryan’s “healthcare” bill. Miners in rural communities would face some of the largest spikes in insurance premiums, while executives would benefit from the bill’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Those tax cuts are paid for by steep cuts to Medicaid, which covers healthcare for the families of many miners. Some conservative Republicans are balking at Ryan’s bill in hopes of more draconian cuts to Medicaid.

Meanwhile, legislation that actually would benefit coal miners languishes in a Republican-led Congress.

The Miners Protection Act proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) stands only a 1 percent chance of being enacted, according to PredictGov. That act would protect miners’ pensions and health benefits threatened by coal bankruptcies. A bill to boost the skilled workforce in energy industries also faces long odds.

The release of Trump’s budget proposal raises new concerns. Trump would axe the Appalachian Regional Commission, which invests in economic development and infrastructure for communities hardest hit by the coal slump. Ditto the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which supports economic diversification in those communities.

That’s provoked outrage even from some spending-averse Republican lawmakers.

Environmental cleanup would be hit too. Beyond the more publicized cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump would defund programs like the Interior Department’s Abandoned Mine Land grants that clean up polluted sites left behind by bankrupt coal companies.

Mine safety could suffer, too. Trump’s budget would cut funds for Occupational Safety and Health Administration training grants. At the state level, Republicans in West Virginia and Kentucky seek to weaken mine safety rules.

In other states, Republicans have pursued pro-coal policies that reveal a stunning disregard for “free market” principles. Virginia Republicans passed a bill, vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), to provide tax credits for coal. Republicans in Oklahoma and Wyoming tried unsuccessfully to tax wind power. The North Dakota legislature is considering a moratorium on wind.

Taken together, these federal and state policies would hurt coal miners while benefiting their bosses. That’s a stunning mismatch between political theater and policy influence. The coal miners so prized in campaign rallies would be among the hardest hit by Republican policies.

Meanwhile, under the guise of populism, coal corporate interests hold sway.

That’s a remarkable outcome. No fuel would benefit more from coal’s demise than its chief competitor, natural gas. The secretary of State hails from the nation’s largest natural gas holder, ExxonMobil. Even a mid-sized gas producer like Encana Corp. has a larger market capitalization than the entire coal industry.

Nothing is more important to air quality and climate than shifting from coal to natural gas and clean energy. How the shrinking coal industry maintains political dominance despite all of this should be Topic A in Lobbying 101.

Coal miners may have captured the political imagination. But it’s coal owners and their political patrons who have captured the reins of policymaking. The path that they steer could mean a bumpy ride for the miners they claim to support, at great cost to their communities and the environment.

Dan Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bernie Sanders Joe Manchin Paul Ryan
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