No Longer America’s Ace in the Hole?

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, American policymakers considered the nation’s massive coal reserves to be an important strategic card, or as President  Gerald Ford announced, coal was “America’s ace in the hole.”

Those coal reserves haven’t dwindled by great bounds since those days, although the methods used to extract it have changed.  In Appalachia, the advent of mountaintop removal has cut into traditional underground mining, so that now most “coal miners” work above the surface.  Well-paying union jobs have disappeared and in states like West Virginia–now America’s most recent “right to work” state–the political influence of organized labor has waned along with them.  Despite lowering the cost of coal extraction, though, the industry has suffered a prolonged slump in the face of competition from domestic sources of natural gas.

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Check that.  Uncle Sam can just replace that shovelful with some natural gas.

So when Donald Trump promised voters in Appalachia that he would revive the coal industry’s fortunes, he struck political gold.  “We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Candidate Trump announced, “the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”  All of those states went red in the recent election, and while coal can’t explain the entire victory, Trump’s promise likely turned many blue collar voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio into his camp.

Can President Trump deliver on Candidate Trump’s promise to coal country? The plan, as far as I can tell, is to roll back environmental regulations and restrictions, thus ending what many Appalachian voters considered to be the Obama Administrations’ “war” on coal.  The mere presence of hurdles to mountaintop removal culled resentment among many residents of coal country, many of whom dismissed job safety and environmental regulations as “job killers.”  Not all of them, of course, as a healthy indigenous resistance to surface mining remains active in Appalachia, despite being outnumbered in the polls and, perhaps most importantly, in policymaking circles.

Despite the heady promises, though, most energy analysts are not buying it.  In publications ranging from Time.com to the New York Times, and Fortune Magazine both before the election and afterwards, articles soundly dismiss the notion that a rollback of regulations can overcome the basic market forces that have weakened the outlook for American coal producers.   Most notably,  coal is no longer the only alternative to petroleum, as it was during the 1970s.  Certainly the industry has faced competition before, but as natural gas and renewable energy sources continue to grow–especially in Republican-heavy rural districts–it’s likely that coal will have a difficult time rebounding.  The culprit here is not a perceived “war” on coal, but instead a deepened and much more diverse energy market.  This benefits American consumers, of course, but will prolong the economic slump in coal country.

No more ace in the hole?  The Trump promise to bring back coal mining jobs appears doomed from the start.  From the perspective of the coal industry, it looks like the dealer is drawing cards from a completely different deck these days.

 

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About Sean Adams

I'm the Chair of the history department at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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