Five years ago, with the coal industry struggling badly, Donald Trump told miners and plant owners that he knew what to do to turn things around. Elect him, the Republican vowed, and coal would thrive once more. The industry felt hopeful anew, and the GOP ticket carried West Virginia by more than 40 points, becoming Trump's single best state.
It didn't matter. Trump did not deliver -- or more accurately, he could not deliver. During his White House tenure, the Republican president loosened rules governing coal ash disposal and mercury pollution, and pushed dubious schemes to prop up coal plants, but market forces continued to crush the industry.
Reuters reported in 2019, for example, "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."
It's causing some coal miners to take a fresh look at how best to prepare for the future. The Associated Press reported yesterday on a striking new shift:
The nation's largest coal miners' union said Monday it would accept President Joe Biden's plan to move away from coal and other fossil fuels in exchange for a "true energy transition" that includes thousands of jobs in renewable energy and spending on technology to make coal cleaner. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said ensuring jobs for displaced miners — including 7,000 coal workers who lost their jobs last year — is crucial to any infrastructure bill taken up by Congress.
The AP report added that the mine workers' union (UMW) unveiled a plan that calls for "significant expansion of tax incentives for renewable energy and preference in hiring for dislocated miners; full funding for programs to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines; and continued incentives to develop so-called carbon capture and storage technology that traps carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and stores it underground."
As is always the case, the details matter, as do the political efforts to move proposals like these through Congress. But at face value, the fact that the nation's largest coal miners' union is eyeing a future in which it will move away from fossil fuels is extraordinary.
Trump told the industry he could turn coal around by way of wholesale indifference toward pollution, safeguards, and the climate crisis. That wasn't enough, and jobs throughout the industry obviously did not recover.
And so now, it's time for Plan B -- which is more in line with what Democratic leaders have in mind.
As the Washington Post's Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent added yesterday, proposals like the UMW's, coupled with the Democratic White House's calls for investments in retrofitting our future decarbonized economy, "suggest the issue may be getting slowly transformed. It's becoming one where the transition can be reimagined in a way that gives working people a stake in that economy, recasting the transition as federal spending on jobs of the future."