O'BRIEN: Coals jobs may be dead, but hope is not


Opinions Column: Policy Over Politics


To the delight of his base, President Donald J. Trump signed a massive and immensely consequential series of executive orders last week aimed at deregulating the fossil fuel industry. In global terms, the most significant portion effectively scrapped former President Barack Obama’s “Clean Power Plan,” a set of regulations aimed at drastically reducing emissions from American power plants, particularly those powered by coal.

The climate change argument against this, on its own, is enough to dismiss these actions as anti-science, immoral and terribly shortsighted policy. The scientific case for human-influenced climate change is overwhelming, as is the fact that it will significantly worsen the lives of billions of poor people — who contribute very little to the problem. Moreover, the only way to truly reduce global emissions is through coordinated action. China, for example, will not make the requisite emissions-reducing investments if the United States not only doesn’t spend its part but also pretends the science is a conspiracy. In other words, if the United States doesn’t take the lead in global climate policy, no one will.

I will, however, set aside these arguments for the sake of this column, since it’s certainly being discussed enough already. Trump’s primary reasoning for these actions was the economic benefits they would supposedly bring, particularly in “coal country,” which consists of portions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. The president performed very well there in the election after promising to revive the coal industry and put tens of thousands of people back to work in the region’s mines and power plants.

But for someone who touts himself as such an incredible businessman, it’s ironic that the president can’t recognize a dying industry when it’s staring him in the face. The coal industry is on life support and has been for a long time. After World War II, there were over 500,000 Americans working in coal mines. With the exception of a brief resurgence in the late 70s, that figure has been steadily falling ever since. By the mid-90s, less than 100,000 people worked in the industry. Today, there are roughly 50,000. Huge advances in machinery and equipment made it cheaper for companies to use fewer workers to mine and process the same amount of coal. The raw amount of coal produced actually grew consistently until recently, all while jobs steadily declined.

Over the past decade, it has been natural gas, rather than Obama’s emissions standards, that has changed the coal industry forever. Advances in hydraulic fracturing technology have made natural gas the cheapest fuel choice for many areas, although it also poses an array of environmental challenges. Additionally, the price of electricity from solar and wind farms has continued to plummet to the point where it too is within striking distance of coal, thanks to heavy government investment in research and development. While it may be politically expedient to blame the coal country’s economic problems on one person or one policy, the long-term forces at play have been much more impactful.

Coal country remains home to some of the most economically devastated areas of the country. West Virginia and Kentucky rank near the bottom in median household income. Poverty in both states is well above the national average — and it is also the epicenter of the opioid crisis.

For too long, politicians have gone to coal country peddling the fundamentally dishonest idea that the old economy can be restored, if only people make more sacrifices. Cut taxes on the wealthy, loosen safety protections on your drinking water and weaken your union, they said, and we promise the jobs will return. The region was instead left with a crumbling economy and a sense of hopelessness that have spiraled into the worst drug epidemic in American history.

Trump and the coal country must embrace the winds of economic change to breathe new life into the region. Instead of sacrificing everything to save an industry that will die regardless, they must adapt to the new economy. The region must repair its long-neglected infrastructure. It must heavily invest in job training programs to give displaced coal miners the appropriate skills to move into other industries. It must renew its focus on public colleges and trade schools to create a globally competitive, 21st-century labor force.

While Trump claims embracing coal will be a boon for growth, clinging to nostalgia will only hurt growth in the long run, particularly for the middle class. Instead of running in fear from economic change, we should embrace it and use newfound gains to build a more equitable, fair and just economy that works for everyone from the unhinged New York real estate developer to the middle-aged unemployed coal miner.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in economics with a minor in history. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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Connor O'Brien

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