By Luke Popovich
July 2, 2017 - The decline of basic industries that provide good jobs for the middle class rightfully disturbs most Americans. Bad enough that they’re disappearing, but worse when these industries are being buried alive.
You wouldn’t know it from much of what you read these days, but the U.S. coal industry isn’t dead and its vital signs are even improving. And despite strong competition from energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar power, coal still generates almost a third of America’s electricity.
This is especially remarkable after former President Obama spent eight years trying to shut down coal production and retire coal power plants through massive regulations, and all at the same time shale gas emerged as a powerful new competitor.
But after a brush with serious illness, coal has emerged from intensive care to slowly regain its strength. The industry added about 2,000 direct jobs in the last year, with 1,700 added just since December 2016. Mines are expanding and new ones are opening in Alabama, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Year-to-date production is up about 50 million tons, rail loadings are climbing despite a relatively mild winter, and power sector coal consumption climbed almost 23 percent in March YTD. Both prices and exports are now expected to tick upwards this year.
Why aren’t we reading about this story of industrial resilience in the face of market competition and federal opposition? And why is the media reporting a funeral when no one has died?
It could be because the coal industry is a favorite of a new president who is deeply unpopular with much of the news media. And to his critics, whatever the president likes must be bad, and whatever he aids must fail.
Clearly the president likes coal. His rollback of costly federal regulations from the Obama-era is gradually helping put some coal communities back on their feet. The Environmental Protection Agency has voided or put on hold costly regulations that would have achieved little or no environmental benefit. The Department of the Interior has lifted a moratorium arbitrarily placed on federal coal production. And the Energy Department has launched a study to see how regulatory interference—resulting in coal plants retirements—has damaged the reliability of the nation’s power grid.
For the president’s critics, this is reason enough to write coal off rather than write of its endurance. For some pundits, coal has become a convenient surrogate for a president they don’t like. By denying or diminishing any signs of industry revival they can deny the president any credit for helping it.
Examples abound. A prominent Washington newspaper recently belittled the revival of the industry by contrasting the slow growth of coal jobs with the rising number of fast food workers. That’s an unhelpful comparison; coal jobs pay an annual average of $84,000, plus good benefits. Fast food jobs offer little more than minimum wage.
The same article also claimed that coal employment has declined since the mid-1980s, a point intended to diminish the impact of Obama-era regulations and write the industry’s obituary. But this premise is wrong. Coal employment climbed by 32 percent from 2000 until 2011,reaching 143,000 jobs before a massive Obama Administration rule—and not natural gas production—began forcing almost 20 percent of America’s coal plants out of business.
Some reporters minimize recent coal job creation by only citing federal data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—a data set that excludes contract workers also working in the mines. Adding contract workers to the recent jobs tally shows that coal has in fact grown by about 2,000 high-wage jobs in the past year. Coal could echo Mark Twain’s crack about his death being greatly exaggerated.
Others attack a straw man, claiming the president will never restore the industry to its dominant position. But most miners already know the difference between campaign rhetoric and reality. They don’t expect “King Coal” to regain the market share it held before the shale gas revolution.
All that coal miners could reasonably expect from the new administration was to get the government off their back and out of the business of picking winners and losers. That’s essentially what this administration is doing—and why lifting the regulations has helped coal mining and the jobs it supports.
Coal’s critics shouldn’t bury the industry just because President Trump promised to revive it. The question now is whether fake news of coal’s demise will be replaced by real news of coal’s survival. Or will coal continue to bear the brunt of media ire against the president.
Luke Popovich is vice president for external relations at the National Mining Association (NMA).