King Coal's Crown Tarnishes Despite Trump's Efforts
By Bruce Frassinelli
September 15, 2020 - Pennsylvania has been producing coal for more than two centuries. It is the fourth largest coal-producing state in the United States and the only one that produces anthracite coal in addition to bituminous.
In our area, we know a thing or two about anthracite coal, because those who live in the “coal region” proudly point to anthracite coal as part of their rich heritage. In these parts, coal was king until the 1950s when oil and gas began to heat people’s homes and overthrew the reigning fuel monarch.
In any case, the decline of the anthracite coal industry can be attributed to several factors in addition to the shift to oil and natural gas as primary home heating fuels after World War II. They involve: Concern over the environmental impact of mining and burning fossil fuels, the dangers associated with mining that culminated in the devastating Knox Mine Disaster in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1959 that resulted in the deaths of 16 miners, disabling injuries and health issues, most notably “black lung” disease, and the increasing costliness of mining coal.
As a boy growing up in the Panther Valley, our home burned anthracite coal. I remember as one of my daily chores shoveling coal from our basement into a hopper that fed our stoker. Anthracite, possibly discovered by Phillip Ginder (also referred to as “Phillip Ginter”) in my hometown of Summit Hill, is described as “hard coal,” although scientists tell us that it is no harder or softer than bituminous, which is known as “soft coal.”
I use the word “possibly,” because there are other claims of earlier discoveries in other counties. For example, some in Schuylkill County maintain that trapper Necho Allen discovered anthracite when he found “rocks” burning in his campfire a year before Ginder in 1790.
Today, the big collieries are all gone. The remaining anthracite mining is pretty much confined to strip mining in six counties - Schuylkill, Carbon, Luzerne, Lackawanna, Columbia and Northumberland. Anthracite coal production went from 44 million tons in 1950 to about 2.6 million tons in 2019.
Bituminous coal production also has been declining since 1990. During a three-month period from January to March of this year, production was 10,474,000 tons compared to 11,722,000 tons mined in the three-month period October-December 2019, a 10.6% decrease.
During those same months, anthracite production went from 766,000 tons to 656,000 tons, a 14.4% drop. Nationwide, coal production fell during that same period from 165.2 million tons to 149.1 million tons, a decrease of 9.8%.
Despite these unfavorable trend lines, President Donald Trump championed coal when he came to campaign in Pennsylvania in 2016 and promised a comeback for “beautiful coal.” In the early part of his first term, he continued to tell crowds of rallygoers in Scranton and Harrisburg how much he has done for mining and miners.
While the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, the statistics tell a different tale. One new mine was started with great fanfare in Western Pennsylvania not long after he took office, but a number of mines that went out of business during the last 3½ years did so without comment by the Trump administration.
Trump says he “digs coal,” yet dozens of coal plants have shut down as the United States continues to move toward clean energy sources instead of coal and oil.
The question now is whether these voters will back Trump for a second term despite the continued setbacks in the industry. In other words, will he get an “E” for effort, or were his promises way too optimistic that his failure to deliver will now cost him votes four years later?
If polls are to be believed, the former is true. Polling among miners and their families in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia shows continued widespread support for Trump despite a lackluster record on the promised mining comeback.
More severe weather, including more intense storm, tornadoes, more numerous hurricanes and horrifying and destructive wildfires throughout the West Coast states have made climate change a central issue, particularly for Democratic candidates from the top of the ticket on down.
Then there is the issue of automation, which has cost thousands of surface-mining jobs - the ones most prevalent in Schuylkill County. High-tech machines can do the work once performed by scores of miners in much less time at a fraction of the cost.
Coal mining in the country employs about 50,000 workers today compared to 88,000 in 2010.
As political strategists ponder miners’ influence in Pennsylvania, some say there are too few along with their families and friends to worry about, but others remind us that in 2016 Trump carried Pennsylvania and won its 20 electoral votes by only 44,292 votes out of nearly 6.2 million cast.
Both parties admit that every vote in precious in a strategically important state such as Pennsylvania, and they covet every single one of them.