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The Coal Industry Isn’t Even Certain That Donald Trump Can Save It

President Trump's newest executive order won't bring coal back for good.

by Sarah Emerson
Mar 28 2017, 9:21pm

Coal country votes were worth more than diamonds to Donald Trump. Stomping around Appalachia, the self-titled savior of the dying industry made coal his biggest campaign issue.

Today's executive order, which repeals the Clean Power Plan and overturns a moratorium on new federal coal leases, isn't a panacea for the miners left behind by dying industry. Like most of what Trump has done in office so far, the changes are a boon for corporate America, dealt at the expense of rural Americans, many of whom elected Trump.

In states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where coal production is a leading source of income, Trump captured more than 60 percent of the vote. "We're going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners," he preached in his first address to Congress last month, reassuring miners and their representatives that he was going to make good on his pledges to them.

So he let fossil fuel disciple Scott Pruitt run amok in the Environmental Protection Agency. And he undid rules that were a nuisance to coal companies. And all the while, Republicans exploited their majority to funnel money from taxpayer's pockets into the coffers of executives, allowing producers to dodge royalties made off of coal sales.

Still, there's no saving coal. Even EPA administrator Scott Pruitt admitted last year that dwindling coal mines "this didn't happen as a result of the heavy hand of the EPA," but rather as a result of market forces. "As natural gas becomes increasingly affordable, it becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to coal," Pruitt said in a testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment.

Just 50,000 coal jobs remain in America. (As of 1980, 250,000 people were employed by the industry.) More than 100 coal-fired power plants have shuttered over the last two years, even with Trump's assurances just months from seeing fruition. According to a report cited by Vox, the Treasury has lost an estimated $28.9 billion in revenue on the industry's downfall.

The Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that analyzes energy trends, recently modeled what would happen to coal if Trump repealed the Clean Power Plan. While the industry would see an initial boost, coal would eventually decline over time—not enough to bring job numbers back to levels seen in the 1980s.

Still, Trump believes that he can strongarm energy markets into favoring coal once more. This has been argued ad nauseum. There's no consensus among coal industry workers, however, as to whether Trump's approach will be successful.

Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, one of the largest mining companies in America, said Trump "can't bring [coal jobs] back." Another coal executive, Richard Reavey of Cloud Peak Energy, advised that "the view should be cautious optimism."

A spokesperson for United Mine Workers of America, a union that represents miners throughout the nation, was more enthusiastic about their odds.

"We believe the Clean Power Plan, as proposed, was flawed. That is why we joined the suit to keep it from going into effect," Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at the United Mine Workers of America, told ABC News today.

"The number of jobs is very difficult to quantify, but it brings with it a good, positive attitude about the coal industry," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

A dozen hopeful miners surrounded Trump while he signed the executive order. But even Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said of the order, "Our nation can't run on pixie dust and hope."