If There’s a ‘War on Coal,’ It Started Long Before President Obama

Why do we keep talking about a “War on Coal?” 

Over the past few years, as economic realities have become grimmer in Kentucky’s coal industry, talking about this “war” has become common parlance for the commonwealth’s politicians—both for Republicans, and for Democrats (including McConnell’s opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes) who want to distance themselves from President Barack Obama’s unpopularity. It’s true: there are fewer coal miners in Kentucky now than any other year since the state began keeping track in 1927. But a look at the data shows how difficult it is to blame fluctuations in markets—especially for natural resources—on any one leader.

Here’s a column Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sent out this week:

The War on Coal being waged by this Administration has real costs for Kentuckians and for Kentucky jobs. The barrage of over-regulation and lack of certainty in the coal industry have contributed to a loss of over 7,300 jobs since the year President Obama took office.

Despite the claims of many, it doesn’t have to be this way. According to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, Kentucky coal jobs were actually up during the previous administration, by 4,200 jobs from 2001 to 2008.

That makes it clear to me that the layers upon layers of regulations this administration and this Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keep piling on are contributing in a major way to this job decline. And yet, the EPA doesn’t want to hear from the very Kentuckians who will be most hurt by their pernicious regulations.

McConnell is correct when he points out that Kentucky coal mining jobs gained under George W. Bush. But that modest increase seems to be an anomaly in the last 30 years of the industry. Under every other recent president—Democrats and Republicans—Kentucky has lost coal jobs. More than 16,000 jobs disappeared during Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office. Did Reagan also have a “War on Coal?” What about George H.W. Bush? Bill Clinton?

Kentucky coal employment hit its peak—about 75,000 miners—in 1949. Then employment started dropping, bottoming out in 1966, when there were 19,313 coal miners in Kentucky. It picked up again, but unfortunately for Kentucky’s coal industry, the overwhelming employment trend has been downward since about 1979.

This was before the Environmental Protection Agency—under Obama—announced plans to make coal-fired power plants restrict mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. It was also before the EPA began scrutinizing surface mining permits and before the Mine Safety and Health Administration began conducting enhanced coal mine inspections to check for safety violations.

The fluctuations in natural resources-based economies are complicated, and are based on a variety of factors. It may be politically convenient for McConnell and other politicians to focus only on the past decade of Kentucky coal employment, but doing so misses the big picture.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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