Coal company town in Jenkins, Kentucky, in 1935. (Library of Congress)
In 2000, Al Gore, the Vice President and Democratic nominee
for president, stated that he had
helped invent the Internet. In
truth, he actually had by directing resources toward it, promoting the concept
of the information superhighway, and pushing the Defense Department to
declassify part of its ARPANET. He did
not claim to write code or invent the concept.
Politically, however, Republicans jumped on him, accusing him of lying and being Al Gore who could not tell the truth. Instead of justly claiming the Internet as a successful example of government support of technological innovation, Gore weakly responded that he was only joking. What should have been a moment of triumph instead became a symbol of Gore the untrustworthy.
Is something similar happening with Hillary Clinton? In March in Ohio, she declared "Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?"
Slam dunk, right? The
former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee is obviously part
of President Obama’s “war on coal.”
Except that sentence was only part of a talk that completely reverses her
meaning. Her entire statement reads
Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let's reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these underserved poor communities.
So, for example, I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?
The simple story is how overworked – or lazy – reporters took the easy way of repeating what others wrote instead of taking the time to read Clinton’s entire talk and how the Internet magnified that one sentence into an attack on Clinton as uncaring. Completely ignored was the reality that she was actually being proactive and trying to help mining communities deal with inevitable change.
The larger and more important story, however, is that the
number of coal miners has declined for decades.
The recent bankruptcies of several major coal companies occurred because
they greatly increased their debt just before coal prices dropped due to the increased
production of natural gas and decreasing demand from China. In the United States, almost 800,000 men
worked as coal miners in 1920. By 1955,
that dropped to 260,000 miners, 130,000 in 1990, and approximately 75,000
Nor are all miners equally productive. Benefitting from strip mining, the 6000 miners in Wyoming produce more coal than the 60,000 underground miners in the Appalachian states.
America is not the only country losing coal mining jobs. In Great Britain, coal fueled the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nearly 1.2 million miners worked in 1920, 49,000 in 1990 – and the last British coal mine closed in 2015.
Expect those trends to continue. The Department of Energy expects Western coal
production to either remain steady at about 600 million tons annually through
2040 or drop to 400 million tons. In
contrast, Appalachian coal is predicted to drop from 300 to 200 million
Appalachia will continue to lose coal jobs. If you read her speech, Hillary Clinton understood that and tried to proactively respond by proposing a $30 billion plan to revitalize coal communities.
If coal miners want a person to blame for decreasing coal use, George Mitchell is their villain. Building on government research, he pioneered the commercial development of fracking oil and gas and transformed American energy. Compared with coal, which now annually kills an estimated 8000 Americans (a sharp drop from over 24,000 in 2004 due to stricter air pollution laws), natural gas is not only environmentally cleaner but also cheaper. As a result, this year will mark the first time natural gas generates more electricity than coal.
Like other single industry areas, closing a coal mine can devastate a region. Like British coal miners, Eastern coal miners have a very strong attachment to their communities. Unfortunately, the mountains that give Appalachia its coal and its alluring beauty also make it economically uncompetitive with other parts of the United States.
Would Clinton’s proposed plan help Appalachia? Possibly.
But if the accuracy of her media coverage does not improve, she may
never get that chance.