Thousands of out of work coal miners from Kentucky to West Virginia to Pennsylvania—important because of its swing state status—have put a headlamp onto the declining coal industry this election season. Hillary Clinton proposes a multi-prong plan that supports workers and communities in a transition away from coal toward more diverse and sustainable economies. Donald Trump, meanwhile, says he will put coal miners back to work in the mines by strengthening the country’s reliance on coal.
As the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Coal Report released this week showed, the reality is, coal will never return to its heyday. In fact, 2015 production was at the lowest level since 1986. Rolling back or stonewalling recent progress in reducing carbon pollutants will not change its downward trajectory. As my colleague, Steve Cicala, explained in this post, those environmental regulations are not the primary reasons why the industry is in a downward spiral. He pointed largely to innovation and market-driven forces, such as cheaper natural gas and long-standing market-based approaches for addressing the pollutants that cause acid rain. Furthermore, mines that continue to operate do so more productively than mines did in the past, meaning that even fewer workers are needed than would have been the case for a similar level of historical production.
Given the dismal state of the industry, the national conversation should not focus on providing false hope of returning the coal industry to coal country, but on providing a realistic picture of how to transition those communities to a new economy. President Obama’s efforts and candidate Clinton’s plan are major steps forward. Still, these plans should be expanded even further to provide a comprehensive approach to the challenge—both retrospective and prospective, both top-down and bottom-up.