Last week, Trump gathered a bunch of coal miners around him and announced the rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations, claiming that would help bring back jobs in the coal industry.
In response, Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this weekend about the myth of coal country. In case you missed it, here’s the link.
Krugman took a look at West Virginia, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by an almost three-to-one majority based on his promise “to bring coal jobs back by eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations.” But, Krugman wrote, the industry long been in “steep decline,” especially since 1980, “mainly because modern extraction techniques — like blowing the tops off mountains — require far less labor than old-fashioned pick-and-shovel mining.” (A Times story a few days earlier pointed out that in addition to explosives, automation has eliminated jobs and will soon eliminate even more: “In Decatur, Ill., far from the coal mines of Appalachia, Caterpillar engineers are working on the future of mining: mammoth haul trucks that drive themselves.”) More recently, fracking made natural gas a cheap alternative. In West Virginia, Krugman said, “it has been a quarter century since [coal jobs] accounted for as much as 5 percent of total employment.” The big employment sector in the state is health care … and a lot of the money for those jobs comes from Washington.
The Washington Post’s Wonkblog also cited increased demand for natural gas as a reason for coal’s drop. It had a few interesting ways of quantifying how small the coal industry is now. The blog said that it’s hard to pin down accurate numbers for total employees in the industry, but according to one Census Bureau program’s data, the coal industry in 2014 employed 76,572 — which included non-mining jobs such as officer workers and sales staff. The article noted:
“Although 76,000 might seem like a large number, consider that similar numbers of people are employed by, say, the bowling (69,088) and skiing (75,036) industries. Other dwindling industries, such as travel agencies (99,888 people), employ considerably more. Used-car dealerships provide 138,000 jobs. Theme parks provide nearly 144,000. Carwash employment tops 150,000.“
When the Post compared the coal industry to individual companies, it found that coal employs fewer workers than Arby’s, which has close to 80,000 employees.
The Guardian used a different source for labor statistics. Citing the Mine Safety and Health Administration, it said coal-mining employed 98,505 people in 2015. (That makes the industry bigger than the Washington Post’s Arby’s example, but smaller than Dollar General with its 105,000 workers.) That was down from 127,745 in 2008, when Obama was elected president, but the 2008 figure had already plunged from 250,000 in the 1970s — when Obama was in high school. The Guardian interviewed Robert Murray, founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal-mining company in the U.S. Murray, who believes carbon dioxide “is not a pollutant,” was enthused about not having to deal with “fraudulent” environmental regulations that added “100 pages” to his daily reading. But even he stated flatly about Trump and coal jobs, “He can’t bring them back.”
In fact, two days after Trump made his announcement, a $600 million coal mining project in Alaska was abandoned by its developers. Vice reported that PacRim Coal LP failed to find an investment partner. The jobs lost? A maximum of 850 — up to 500 jobs during construction and up to 350 jobs during the projected 25-year operating life of the mine. As Krugman wrote about the presidential election, West Virginia’s “‘coal country’ residents weren’t voting to preserve what they have, or had until recently; they were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.” Sad.