Candidate Trump made a lot of promises to a lot of people on his way to winning the election. How and whether he will keep those promises remains to be seen, but saving coal will be one promise that he won’t be able to keep, and the reason will be the very thing he and his current Republican sycophants tout – market forces.
In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, the author laments the destruction of the coal culture and the loss of family ties that supported his Appalachian ancestors. Many of the people in Vance’s Appalachian coal mining country believe that it was the current president’s war on 19th century dirty fuels and support of 21st century clean energy alternatives that caused the steep decline in its fortunes. But the reality is that coal’s decline, especially Appalachian coal, began long ago, and the people left behind by the demise of this industry have not yet come to accept the fact that coal cannot compete against global market forces bringing cheaper natural gas, new and now cheaper renewable energy sources, stronger air-quality regulations (started in the Bush 43 administration) and weaker demand for coal in Asia.
I reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. I say reluctantly because I felt she was a very flawed candidate who would, if elected, give Mitch McConnell and others in congress the mandate to continue to block any progress necessary to move forward in this country. Don’t get me wrong; I could NEVER support Trump, because I believed him when he said all those nasty things about EVERYBODY. I took him literally, but I didn’t take him seriously. But I had doubt after doubt heaped up in my mind with Hillary on so many occasions. There were a number of times that I cringed at some of Ms. Clinton’s statements, but never so much as the time that she said she would put the coal miners out of work. A ridiculous thing for a candidate of empathy to say, and another example of her tin ear when it came to the legitimate concerns of legitimate people. They want jobs! They want to get off public assistance! They want their dignity back! They want to put food on their table and shoes on their kids’ feet! She backpedaled furiously after realizing how stupid that statement was, but not soon enough to undo the damage she had done, giving the Donald an opening you could drive a coal train through.
How will reverence for our planet manifest itself during a Trump presidency? It is difficult to predict, but it has been said frequently since the election that his supporters took him seriously but didn’t take him literally when he made all those promises. I think those of us on the other side take some time to really think about that.
Let’s take a look at coal. The decline in coal employment, especially in Appalachian West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, started during the Reagan years when automation and mechanization began replacing miners with machines, especially in mountaintop removal mining (a horrible destruction of the environment that, literally, takes the top off the mountain and dumps it into the valley below). Deregulation of the railroads caused freight prices to drop giving cleaner and cheaper Western coal an advantage in global markets. (I cannot give credit to Reagan for having foresight in this, but who knows? After all, he was a man of the West.) Appalachian mines began to close up, leaving environmental scars, equipment and slag heaps behind, forcing the producers into bankruptcy.
Mr. Trump, despite his promises to the contrary, cannot change this trend.
Appalachian coal is no longer economically feasible, a market-based victory that should be hailed as a lesson in the right way to win by environmentalists and lovers of our planet. (Yes! Embrace a free market approach of equalized treatment and new technologies will flourish. Case in point; Decades of preferential treatment with subsidies and secret deals cut by previous administrations to support Arab regimes and oil consumption over alternative auto engine and clean energy technologies.)
In order for Mr. Trump to improve Appalachian coal’s fate, it would require enormous market intervention like direct mandates to consume coal (very unlikely) or significant tax breaks to coal’s benefit over other energy sources (also very unlikely). Decades of Republican infighting in support of competitive markets make these approaches highly unlikely. What I am most concerned with right now are the many voices calling for opening up federal land and waters to oil, gas and coal production.
In theory, energy companies seeking to overturn decades of environmental land management policy, find this option very appealing. But in actuality, doing so would exacerbate the challenges already facing the energy industry, especially coal, adding to the oversupply of energy and lowering prices, making it even harder for coal companies to stay profitable. The broad approach to allow all energy sources to compete equally, including renewables, would lead to more natural gas production, a much cleaner alternative to coal-fired power plants, further depressing natural gas prices, signaling the final death knell in a fair fight for uncompetitive coal.
Natural gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, (currently the largest publicly traded energy company on the planet until Saudi Aramco goes public next year) are now defenders of clean air and low carbon regulations. (My last book, The Outcasts of Eden, looks at this very topic!) Exxon Mobil operates in countries that care about reducing carbon emissions and they publicly supported the Paris climate agreement. Shutting down 19th century energy sources such as coal, in favor of 21st century clean burning alternatives such as natural gas, is the way of the future for companies like Exxon Mobil.
We can thank President Obama for taking climate change seriously and spurring the rapid acceptance of renewables. Donald Trump made lots of campaign promises suggesting the end of support for renewable energy technologies in favor of old world energy sources. Recently, his statements have changed their tune, and he is now calling for supporting all energy forms, including renewables. We cannot yet know what President Trump (Ah! I just can’t get used to saying that!) would do that Candidate Trump claimed he would do, which brings me back to the sentiment from his supporters to take him seriously, but not literally. After all, wind and solar farms are most often installed in rural areas of the country. All those rust-belt, farm-belt, coal-belt, desert-belt people in the heart of America’s wind and sun corridor who voted for Trump might not be so giddy next time around if their guy tries to undermine one of their most important future sources of economic growth.