The American coal industry may have won a battle yesterday with President Donald Trump’s dismantling of environmental regulations via executive order. But the stubborn reality of the country’s energy portfolio shows that coal has already lost the war.
Even one of the coal sector’s most strident generals, Murray Energy founder and CEO Robert Murray, acknowledged that coal jobs will not come back to the U.S. any time soon.
In an interview with the Guardian, Murray warned that while times are “better” for his company and the coal industry, Trump should “temper” expectations when it comes to any future revival in coal jobs. “He can’t bring them back,” Murray told reporter Dominic Rushe in an interview published on Monday.
If Murray thinks coal jobs will not bounce back in significant numbers, he certainly placed much of the blame on the Barack Obama administration for hastening the coal industry’s decline. He described the former president and his supporters as the “greatest destroyers” in American history and called Trump’s election a victory for working people.
Whether these people’s victory will return the jobs they lost is doubtful. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) last estimated that 98,505 people worked in coal mines at the close of 2015. That is down 23 percent from the 127,745 people who worked in the industry back in 2008.
But the debate over what killed coal overlooks the fact that the industry has been in decline for decades, from the 228,000 workers it in 1980. As Patrick Reis discussed in The Atlantic almost four years ago, changes in how coal is extracted — including automation — contributed to a steep reduction in employment at mining operations nationwide.
The sharp decrease in employment, in fact, could be attributed to the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton – although another side of the story is that while a more efficient coal sector resulted in far less employment, it also translated into higher pay for those who were able to hang onto their jobs.
Furthermore, although analysts expect a slight uptick in U.S. coal production over the next two years, they say employment in the sector is likely to continue falling. Most new coal jobs will come in regions such as the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, where coal is far easier to extract than from the older Appalachia mines in states such as West Virginia.
While voters bought into the popular image of coal miners wielding pickaxes and donning hats with carbide lamps, much of that work is now done by bulldozers and conveyor belts, Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter of Bloomberg pointed out this week. So in fact it was capitalism, not regulations, that demolished the coal industry, added Chris Isidore of CNNMoney.
This week’s interview was not the first time Murray publicly warned Trump about his hopeful rhetoric.
Speaking to CNNMoney last December, Murray said at best Trump’s election could stop the industry’s bleeding, rather than inspire a complete turnaround. Insisting that a change of administrations could prevent the industry from any further collapse, Murray said of Trump’s focus on coal, “If he just stops it where it is, that will be a wonderful thing.”
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