Coal miners rank among the most iconic workers in the American landscape. The image of men coming into the light from deep beneath the Earth with pickaxes over their shoulders has been burned into the nation’s fabric.
This imagery conjures up an idea of American greatness through hard work. Coal miners are touchstones, like steel workers, lumberjacks and Rosie the Riveter. And despite being caught in a political and economic crossfire for many years, coal miners matter.
The importance of coal in the American economy has been overstated for decades. The actual peak of coal mining jobs was 863,000 in 1923, nearly a century ago. The black rock needed to be broken and shoveled, and that took back-breaking labor.
Machinery, poor trade agreements and other factors created a steady loss of coal mining jobs. But the miners themselves never had a bull’s eye their back until former President Barack Obama and the liberal elite made them a poster child of climate change.
The Politics of Coal
In 2008, Obama declared war on coal.
“If somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them,” Obama said.
The former president’s plans involved the elimination of all coal-burning facilities through expensive government regulation, renewable energy and cheap natural gas.
Under Obama, the coal industry lost jobs and bottomed out at the lowest employment in 125 years, just 53,000 miners. During his presidency, Obama guided policies that caused 83,000 people to lose their job, decimated entire communities and shut down 400 mines all told. Obama didn’t just bankrupt coal-burning power plants. He bankrupted blue collar Americans.
That 8-year bloodletting put the coal industry front and center for the 2016 presidential campaign. Democrat pundits touted 260,000 American solar jobs, claiming in many cases that nothing could save the 53,000 miners still standing. Hillary Clinton even made the infamous slip that she, like Obama, was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
During his White House run in 2016, Donald J. Trump proposed a major policy reversal, saying “we will put our miners back to work.”
On Election Day, Trump swung eight of the 10 major coal states, including Wyoming, Kentucky, Montana, Texas, Indiana, North Dakota and battle ground West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Coal was king it appeared, at least for a day. But given that energy companies have switched over to cheap natural gas and much of the manufacturing has been shuttered and shipped abroad, does coal mining matter beyond political rhetoric?
Rising from the Ashes
Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, the Trump Administration has stripped away may job-killing regulations from government bodies such as the EPA.
Industry confidence is up and coal mines have begun to open. They’ve come in drips and drabs so far. Each mine creates 100-400 full-time jobs, with an average starting salary upwards of $70,000 without a college degree. For many, that’s a real shot at the American Dream, owning a home and raising a family. For the businesses in these communities, coal is an economic lifeblood that buoys car dealers, home builders and ensures waitresses their customers can afford to tip. Coal has a significant economic impact on everyday people living above ground.
About 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA, the recently opened Acosta Mine restored 100 full-time jobs and may be an important indicator. The 120-foot deep mine is expected to produce 400,000 tons of metallurgical or “coking” coal used to the production of steel.
In West Virginia, Alpha Natural Resources and Ramaco Development plan to open three total coking coal mines. In Tennessee, Panther Eagle Mine plans to break ground by summer’s end and in Alabama Warrior Met Coal Mine is being resurrected. Obama may have killed many coal-fueled energy production plants, but it takes coal to make iron and steel.
Since the November election, metallurgical coal has started to show a significant uptick. It bottomed out at 9.1 million short tons of exports in 2016’s third quarter, following four consecutive years of steady decline. During the same time period, it gained 2.5 million exported short tons at a $40 increase to close out the year.
The recent string of mine openings appears to be tapping into the growing global need for steel-making coal. In many ways, coal production serves as an economic indicator for worldwide energy production and manufacturing.
Yes, coal is still very relevant. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t shovel itself.
~ Liberty Planet