Conservatives Misrepresent Coal Industry's Decline To Attack Clinton's Coal Communities Aid Plan

Conservative media figures are attacking Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's plan to revitalize coal communities by deceptively claiming Obama administration environmental policies that Clinton supports are responsible for “destroying” and “crippling” coal country in the first place. But these media figures are downplaying -- or outright ignoring -- more significant factors that have led to the coal industry's decades of decline, such as competition from natural gas and renewables, depletion of easily recoverable coal reserves, and advances in mining technology.

Hillary Clinton Announced Revitalization Plan For Coal Communities

Hillary Clinton Proposed $30 Billion Plan For “Revitalizing Coal Communities.” On November 12, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced a $30 billion plan aimed at “revitalizing coal communities.” The Clinton campaign's website stated: “Hillary Clinton is committed to meeting the climate change challenge as President and making the United States a clean energy superpower. At the same time, she will not allow coal communities to be left behind--or left out of our economic future. That's why Clinton announced a $30 billion plan to ensure that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned and respect they deserve, to invest in economic diversification and job creation, and to make coal communities an engine of US economic growth in the 21st century as they have been for generations.” The plan includes:

  • Ensuring access to health care and retirement benefits, and safeguarding funding for local schools in coal communities;
  • Investing in infrastructure to “help people to find good jobs without having to move and build a strong, diversified economic future”;
  • Establishing a “Coal Communities Challenge Fund” that awards grants to drive local economic development. [, accessed 11/17/15]

Conservative Media Misrepresent Factors Behind Coal's Decline To Attack Clinton, Environmental Policies 

Conservative Media Allege Obama Administration Environmental Policies Backed By Clinton Are “Destroying” And “Crippling” Coal Country. Conservative media have attacked Clinton's coal revitalization plan by accusing Clinton and the Obama administration of “destroying” coal industry jobs and “crippling” coal communities in the first place:

  • The Wall Street Journal editorial board described Clinton's plan as “a plan for government to rescue the coal miners who the government has put out of work,” adding that "[s]hale fracking for natural gas has contributed to the carnage, but the Environmental Protection Agency has assisted by promulgating rules on mercury emissions and ash disposal. The Administration's new Clean Power Plan will finish off the industry, which still accounts for about a third of U.S. electric generation and two-thirds in Ohio and Iowa." The Journal concluded, “So here we have the progressive policy arc made clear: First destroy coal jobs to please affluent liberals over climate change, then tax all Americans more to buy the support of the workers who had those jobs. How about not destroying the jobs in the first place?” [The Wall Street Journal, 11/13/15]

  • On the November 17 edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Dana Perino read from the Wall Street Journal editorial and asserted that Clinton “wants to aid coal country while she's actually voting and campaigning to destroy coal country.” [Fox News, The Five, 11/17/15]

  • A article uncritically reported that Republicans accuse Clinton of “backing policies that are 'crippling' coal country in the first place,” and asserted that "[t]he coal industry has suffered as governments have pushed new policies to curb climate change and promote more renewable fuels." [, 11/13/15]

  • The conservative news site Daily Caller claimed that "[c]ostly rules limiting mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide and particulates have made it too costly to operate coal plants in the face of cheap natural gas. Regulations like these have contributed to 3,702 lost coal mine jobs under Obama. Similarly, power plants shed 39,684 jobs during Obama's tenure." The Daily Caller also promoted Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short's claim that "[i]f Hillary Clinton were truly on the side of coal country, she would stand up to extreme anti-energy environmentalists that run the Democrat party instead of embracing their agenda that is killing jobs and driving up costs." [The Daily Caller, 11/12/15]

  • An article in the Washington Examiner uncritically quoted the same remark by Short that was included in the Daily Caller article, as well as Short's claim that “Hillary Clinton is Public Enemy No. 1 for coal miners and their communities because she wholeheartedly supports President Obama's EPA agenda that is crippling their way of life.” [Washington Examiner, 11/12/15]

Coal Industry's Decline Dates Back Decades, Caused Mainly By Market Forces And Technological Advances

Coal Employment Has Been In Decline Since The 1980s. According to the coal industry trade group the National Mining Association, coal mining employment peaked in 1984 at approximately 178,000 jobs, and has steadily declined since. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis similarly shows that coal mining employment has been declining since the mid-1980s. [National Mining Association, June 2012; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, accessed 11/18/15]

Coal Jobs In Appalachia Fared Worse Under The Previous Administrations. The National Journal explained that the coal industry in the Appalachia region “fared far worse under the Reagan, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush administrations than they have under Obama,” despite “all the rage over Obama's environmental agenda”:

[F]or all the rage over Obama's environmental agenda, mining jobs began disappearing in the region long before he entered the White House, for reasons that have nothing to do with regulations now coming out of Washington.

In fact, coal mining jobs in Appalachia fared far worse under the Reagan, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush administrations than they have under Obama.

According to employment counts from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, from 1983--the earliest year for which MSHA had data--to 1989, combined coal jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky fell from 79,000 to 64,000.

In the following four years under the first President Bush, coal jobs in the two states fell to 56,000. And by the final year of the Clinton administration, the states' combined total of mining jobs had fallen to a nadir of 33,000.

By comparison, West Virginia and Kentucky coal-mining payrolls have been relatively stable during Obama's first four years in office: In 2009, there were just under 43,000 coal miners in the two states combined. In 2012, the latest year for which MSHA has final data, the count totaled just over 41,000.

This chart from the Center for American Progress shows the decline of coal employment over the past few decades:

Coal Employment

[National Journal, 10/31/13; Center for American Progress, 10/6/14]

Advances In Productivity Lessened The Need For Coal Workers. The National Journal explained that technological advances have “made miners more efficient” and is likely a more prominent driver of the decline in coal jobs than regulations:

So what's driv­ing the de­cline? First and fore­most: changes in the in­dustry.


Advances in mining technology have made miners more efficient.

Indeed, the traditional images of coal mines--dark holes filled with men swinging pickaxes and pushing carts--are no more. Today, it is machines that are ripping coal from the mines' walls, and then automatic conveyor belts whipping the fuel back to the surface.

And much of the production has moved above ground entirely, thanks to a practice known as mountaintop-removal mining, in which miners use controlled explosions to open mountains and mine the newly exposed coal seams.

For the miners and other industry employees who still hold jobs, the increased productivity has paid off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nominal average annual coal industry employee wages in West Virginia sat at $54,000. By 2012, the average employee was taking home nearly $85,000. [National Journal, 10/31/13]

Experts: Market Forces, Coal Depletion Are “More Important Factors” Than EPA Regulations In Appalachian Coal Industry's Decline. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that experts consider competition from natural gas and renewables and “a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves” to be “more important factors” than “tougher air-pollution rules” in the Appalachian coal industry's decline. From the Gazette-Mail:

“It just doesn't look like coal there is going to boom in the future,” said Robert Milici, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The best coal has been mined out. It's pretty well gone.”

Production in the Central Appalachian basin, which consists mostly of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, peaked at about 290 million tons in 1990 and again in 1997, according to federal government data. But even as national production continued to grow over the following decade, Central Appalachian output fell 20 percent, to about 235 million tons, by 2008.

Industry consultants, government forecasters and even some public officials had been warning for decades that, someday, this would happen. In 1995, for example, a report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”


“Central Appalachian coal mining is in decline because the thickest, easiest-to-access seams have been mined out and because natural gas and renewables are getting cheaper,” Evan Hansen, co-author of the Downstream Strategies report, said this week. “This is a reality that we need to address head-on, whether or not [the] EPA issues new regulations on coal-fired power plants.” [Charleston Gazette-Mail, 7/31/14]

Conservative Outlets Cite Study On Coal Job Losses While Ignoring Its Finding Of Broader Positive Impact On Energy Workforce

Conservative Media Outlets Touted Study Finding Loss Of 50,000 Coal Jobs, But Study Found Net Increase In Energy Jobs. The Wall Street Journal, Perino, The Daily Caller, and all cited a Duke University study published in the journal Energy Policy finding that the coal industry lost nearly 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012. Yet they failed to mention that the Duke study found an overall increase in energy jobs for that time period. As The Washington Post reported, the study found “a net increase of some 125,000 jobs” when job gains in the natural gas and wind and solar sectors are taken into account. 

Energy Workforce Chart

[Energy Policy, July 2015; The Washington Post, 4/1/15]