Media outlets and industry experts are recognizing that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is wildly off-base when he claims that he can revive the coal industry, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is correct when she says that market forces -- not environmental regulations -- are the main cause of the coal industry’s decline.
Following his victory in the May 3 Republican primary, Trump pledged, “We're going to get those miners back to work,” referencing coal miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio specifically. When asked how exactly Trump would accomplish that feat, a Trump advisor said the candidate would review Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards that affect the coal industry.
But Trump’s plan to restore coal industry employment is highly unrealistic, as several industry experts and media fact-checkers have recently noted.
In a May 5 “Fact Check,” the Associated Press reported that while Trump has long claimed that EPA emission standards on coal-fired power plants are “killing American jobs,” experts say “a bigger factor in coal's decline has been cheaper natural gas.” The AP noted that John Deskins, the director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, “said government's ability to boost coal production is limited,” and the AP quoted Deskins saying, “It is very unlikely we will see a return to levels of coal production like we observed in 2008." The AP added: “There is another limitation on coal's future in Appalachia: After decades of heavy production, there is less of it to be mined.”
Similarly, in a May 10 column in The Hill, contributor and Rice University associate professor Daniel Cohan wrote: “Despite the bold pledge, Trump is about as likely to bring back the heyday of coal mining employment as to cajole Mexico to fund a border wall. Neither is going to happen, no matter who is elected president.” Cohan noted that Appalachian coal mining employment “began to decline in the 1980s,” and that the “financial services firm Lazard estimates that wind, utility-scale solar and natural gas all provide cheaper options for new power generation than coal, even before considering subsidies.” Cohan added that the U.S. coal industry can also no longer count on coal exports, which “have plummeted as demand has waned in Europe and Asia,” particularly in China, where the government is cutting the country’s coal use to address severe air pollution and climate change.
Additionally, a May 10 ClimateWire article titled “Trump Cannot Bring Back Coal” reported that both Deskins and Chiza Vitta, a Standard & Poor’s credit rating analyst, “see a continuing decline in the coal sector, with no real chance for a major recovery.” ClimateWire reported that Vitta said the coal industry is going to have to “be notably smaller to be profitable again” and added: “We do not view regulations as the primary factor for the decline.”
As Forbes contributor Tim Worstall put it: “Trump simply isn’t going to bring back all those mining jobs. They’re gone, gone forever.”
Meanwhile, PolitiFact has ruled that Clinton’s claim that “the market” is responsible for coal industry bankruptcies is “mostly true.”
In a May 4 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Clinton stated:
One hundred thousand coal miners in this country lost their lives in the 20th century, so I want people to pay attention to what we, as a nation, need to do to support them. But the market is making this decision. The market has driven down the cost of coal so you have companies going bankrupt. So what I'm offering is a $30 billion plan to really revitalize coal country, to provide support for coal miners and their families, and I think that is the least the country owes these brave people.
In its May 10 fact check of Clinton’s remarks, PolitiFact determined that it is “mostly true” that “market forces made coal companies go bankrupt.” PolitiFact stated: “We talked to coal industry experts who told us that the primary forces working against coal are market-based, notably the growth of natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper alternative.” In addition to low natural gas prices, Politifact reported that West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley cited a “depleted supply” of Appalachian coal and “growing demand and diminishing costs for renewable energy, like wind and solar power,” as significant factors in the coal industry’s decline.
But it was a big, failed bet on the international coal market that ultimately pushed companies to a point where they couldn’t pay off their debts, forcing them to file for bankruptcy reorganization.
About five years ago, the big coal companies — Arch, Alpha and Peabody — took out massive loans to invest in metallurgical coal, a type found in the Appalachia region. They thought fast-growing Asian countries, particularly China, would want the coal to facilitate economic development.
But China’s growth slowed, and the demand never materialized. The companies have been unable to pay back their debts on this project, and that’s what sent them into bankruptcy, [University of Wyoming professor Robert] Godby said.
PolitiFact said that environmental regulations “may make electricity companies apprehensive about investing in coal down the line,” and “may play a larger role” as the coal industry becomes more vulnerable and environmental protections grow. But the article concluded, “Economic forces on both the national and international markets are the main reason coal’s prominence in the American energy sector is now vulnerable, forcing coal-burning plant closures and several high-profile bankruptcies.”
Indeed, while Clinton’s remarks about the coal industry have been frequently distorted by conservative media, competition from natural gas and renewables, depletion of easily recoverable coal reserves, and advances in mining technology are the most significant factors in the coal industry’s decline -- not environmental protections.