The "war on coal" has already been lost. The president's policies are helping us lose the war to slow climate change.
The U.S. coal industry once employed 800,000 workers.
But that was in the 1920s. Coal was even mined in the Puget Sound region, including the Franklin and Black Diamond mines in King County.
The work was back-breaking and dangerous. In 1907, an explosion at a West Virginia mine killed 362 men and boys. That year coal cost the lives of 3,242 miners.
Some of the nation’s bloodiest labor disputes took place in coal districts. For example, the Ludlow Massacre saw the Colorado National Guard use machine guns on strikers and their families outside John D. Rockefeller’s mine. At least 19 died, although some fatality counts are much higher.
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The grim song “Sixteen Tons,” popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford, is a dirge to this life. The famous refrain is “You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”
Yet apparently President Donald Trump, a rich man from New York City, thinks this was when America was “great.” To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he thinks he’s only dialing us back to the 1950s or ’60s.
This past week, Trump announced the rollback of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and gave states more authority on how much coal-fired power plants would be regulated.
Trump’s EPA admitted the change would lead to more deaths and emissions, costing the country between $1.4 billion and $3.9 billion annually. No matter. The president is in love with the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.
But this is not 1920.
As of last month, the entire country had fewer than 53,000 people working in coal mining, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Amazon employs 45,000 at its Seattle headquarters alone.
This staggering drop in employment has little to do with the supposed “war on coal.”
Natural gas is cheaper and relatively cleaner. It’s been supplanting coal to run power plants and heavy industry for years. In 2017, coal accounted for 17.8 percent of U.S. energy consumption compared with nearly 32 percent percent from natural gas. Coal’s share has been falling since 2005.
Meanwhile, automation and open-pit mining have dramatically reduced the need for the large work forces associated with mining tunnels and manual labor.
At the same time, companies as well as states, including Washington, are moving more toward renewable energy.
To be sure, coal’s decline has been hastened by federal pollution rules, including the Obama plan. But the trajectory of domestic decline was already in place.
U.S. coal exports have increased. But this represents a fraction of coal production, and new export terminals face resistance (including in Washington).
And miners won’t be helped by the new dirty-energy policy.
In a rally in West Virginia this past week, Trump claimed, “We are putting our great coal miners back to work.” That’s highly doubtful.
Last year, fifth-generation miner Nick Mullens wrote on his blog, “If anything, Trump’s administration is paving the way to reducing mining jobs in Appalachia by opening the floodgates on surface mining, a highly productive form of mining that requires fewer miners who can be paid lower wages.”
If Trump wanted to pick an industry to resurrect from its “great” days, he could pick railroads.
They employed about 2 million Americans in 1920 (total population 106 million), working in better conditions than coal mining. America had the finest passenger-train network in the world.
But rolling back this clock would require banning numerous advances, from diesel locomotives to modern signaling, and subsidizing the vast passenger-train network (something many Republicans especially despise) that existed then.
Without large train crews — including the firemen who shoveled coal into steam locomotives and brakemen who walked atop boxcars manually setting brakes — and others such as boiler mechanics, baggage handlers and crossing guards, it would be hard to return to those numbers.
Last year American freight railroads, a very high-tech industry, employed about 165,000.
To be sure, building high-speed rail and electrifying the freight lines would create plenty of jobs. But that’s not going to happen under Trump.
This inattention to positive steps makes it hard to see the coal initiative, as well as other retrograde moves such as rescinding car-mileage standards, as anything but cynical giveaways to Trump’s wealthy fossil-fuel pals.
The rest of us don’t have to use our imaginations to see where these policies help lead.
For days, Seattle’s air looked like Pittsburgh circa 1944, when coal-fed steel mills filled the city with a sooty haze. Or edging toward a repeat of London’s infamous Killer Smog of 1952, again with coal as a key culprit.
This time, however, the dangerous event was precipitated by historic forest fires burning all over the Northwest and British Columbia, with a driver being human-caused climate change.
Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke grudgingly admitted that climate change is at least partly to blame, after initially blaming “environmental terrorist groups” for California’s enormous fires.
The climate emergency should be the focus of any responsible American administration. Instead, Trump is a denier who made the United States the only nation not a party to the Paris accords to reduce carbon emissions.
Increasingly beset by scandal, he dangles shiny baubles for his base. Look, I’m saving coal miners!
Even if it were true, don’t look for a positive economic effect. This long, slow-but-steady general economic boom is cloaking the costs of climate inaction.
Carbon emissions are continuing to rise worldwide, as is the trend line of heat. We can’t adapt our way out of this, and these four or eight lost years to Trump and the Republicans may be pivotal to the future.
To avert the worst, we need an emphasis on renewable energy — and some fundamental changes in the way we live.
The solution for coal is simple: Keep it in the ground.