Trump is making promises on coal mining jobs he can’t possibly keep

Trump is making promises on coal mining jobs he can’t possibly keep
Trump is making promises on coal mining jobs he can’t possibly keep

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Without the Clean Power Plan, the EIA estimates that US coal production would rise to 2015 levels before sinking again. For context: In 2015, there were roughly 63,000 coal mining jobs — a little higher than today's levels, but still lower than at any time since the 1980s.

And that's a best-case scenario for miners. There's reason to suspect the EIA might be overly optimistic about future coal production here. For one, the agency has long underrated wind and solar growth. Second, many states are mulling plans to close their coal plants and shift to cleaner sources even if the Clean Power Plan is killed — because they know that carbon cuts are inevitable. (See Emily Holden's interview with utility regulators in Arkansas for a great example.) Third, automation is likely to expand, which means mining jobs wouldn't necessarily return even if production rebounds.

So unless Trump plans to ban fracking or automation, about the most coal miners can hope for is either a modest increase in employment or a slower decline than would've otherwise been the case. Even some coal executives quietly admit this: "I don't think it will be a thriving industry ever again," mining CEO Robert Murray told SNL reporter Taylor Kuykendall before the election. At best, "it will be an extremely competitive industry and it will be half size. … The coal mines cannot come back to where they were or anywhere near it."

Whether that's good enough for Trump's supporters in coal country is something we'll find out over the next few years. One possibility is that they'll give him credit for helping the coal industry no matter what happens or what the numbers say — much like that Trump voter quoted above. After all, coal is declining more slowly than it would've under Hillary Clinton.

But another possibility is that they'll feel angry and misled if jobs keep vanishing. Shortly after the election, NPR ran an interview with a miner in Wyoming who saw Trump as the industry's last hope for reversing its long-term decline. "If he doesn't do what he says he's going to do," the miner added, "you know, why are people going to vote for Republicans again?"


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