By Anya M. Galli Robertson
Although the Trump Administration is telling a different story, coal won’t be making a full comeback.
In this context, the discourse of “bringing back coal jobs” is more political than it is practical.
Some politicians have hailed the new executive order as good news for coal country. But given the limitations on the market share for coal, prospects for employees in the coal industry are anything but bright. Moreover, technological innovations and shifts from shaft mining to strip and mountaintop removal mining mean that many mining jobs are now either obsolete or increasingly automated and mechanized. As one miner quoted in the New York Times last week said, “it’s not ever going to be the same.”
Even coal executives agree that coal jobs won’t return in the way President Trump has promised. In a recent op-ed, Vice President of the National Mining Association Luke Popovich writes that rather than signaling “industry salvation,” Trump’s executive order is “a return to common-sense energy policy” and free market economics. Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy infamous for his vocal opposition to federal regulations, praised the President’s executive actions but suggested that Trump “temper his expectations” about significantly increasing industry jobs in coal country. In the words of one mining company executive I spoke to as part of my dissertation research, “king coal isn’t coming back. We might be a duke or a prince, but we’ll never be king again.”
Trump’s promise to “put our miners back to work” comes at a time when the American public is increasingly receptive to renewable energy and supportive of environmental regulations. Research by the Yale Program on Climate Communication finds that 7 in 10 of the Americans surveyed reported that they supported restricting emissions from coal-fired power plants. Yale researchers report that even among respondents who voted for Trump, coal emissions were still considered to be a problem: “almost half (48%) support setting strict carbon dioxide emissions limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase.”
So why do we keep hearing about coal jobs? The discourse of the incompatibility of environmental interests and the national economy—central to which is the claim that regulations hurt employment—is nothing new. Industries leverage powerful narratives in order to justify environmentally harmful activities, evade regulation, and shape policy debates. The late environmental sociologist Bill Fruedenburg called these narratives “privileged accounts.” By framing the debate over coal in terms of human and economic costs (poverty and unemployment in coal country), such accounts divert attention away from criticisms of coal-fired power.
What stands out about the current question about the future of coal is that even the industry itself has abandoned the jobs narrative, leaving the promises of restoring jobs and the traditional way of life in coal country to politicians. The results of the election are proof that the Trump Administration stands to benefit from such promises, but the benefits for coal industry employees have yet to materialize.