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Despite his rhetoric, Trump isn't saving the coal industry

It's not fair to blame Trump for the coal industry's severe troubles. It is fair to blame him for making promises he'd never be able to keep.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 10, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 10, 2016. 

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a report with a familiar headline: "In Pro-Trump West Virginia Coal Country, the Jobs Keep Leaving." The feature quoted one local industry employee saying, "It's only going to get worse."

Two days later, another WSJ report helped drive the point home.

Murray Energy Corp., led by outspoken Trump administration ally Robert Murray, has filed for chapter 11 protection, a stark example of coal's diminished role in the U.S. energy sector.The eighth coal producer to collapse into bankruptcy over the past year, Murray Energy is the latest to fall victim to diminished demand for coal and competition from cheaper fuels.

The Journal cited a series of contributing factors, including "abundant natural gas and renewable energy sources." The article also quoted Murray Energy's current CEO pointing to the "recent trade war" as a factor in depressing international demand for U.S. coal.

NBC News ran a related report a couple of months ago, noting that Donald Trump promised miners "he would restore the industry -- and their jobs -- after years of steady decline." To that end, the Republican administration has "loosened rules governing coal ash disposal and mercury pollution from power plants." Team Trump has also pushed dubious schemes to prop up coal plants.

The president and GOP senators even put a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But it hasn't worked. Reuters reported earlier this year, "More U.S. coal-fired power plants were shut in President Donald Trump's first two years than were retired in the whole of Barack Obama's first term, despite the Republican's efforts to prop up the industry to keep a campaign promise to coal-mining states."

Consider this chart I put together, showing the trajectory of coal mining jobs in the United States over the last decade. The blue line marks the trend during the Obama era, while the red line shows the Trump era.

As far as Trump was concerned, he could end Obama's "war on coal" and push the industry to new heights, regardless of the environmental consequences. What the Republican didn't realize is that Obama's "war on coal" wasn't real. The marketplace changed in ways politicians had little control over.

With that in mind, it's worth emphasizing that it wouldn't be fair to blame Trump specifically for the industry's ongoing difficulties. This isn't the president's fault.

It would be entirely fair, however, to blame Trump for making promises he couldn't keep, assuring these workers and their families he could fix a problem he had no ability to fix, and failing spectacularly to help transition these communities to a new economic model.