West Virginians are realistic about coal’s demise, even if politicians aren’t

Lawmaker praises Scott Pruitt for creating “sense of hope” in state.

Coal miners wave signs as candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally last May in Charleston, West Virginia: CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Coal miners wave signs as candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally last May in Charleston, West Virginia: CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

A West Virginia congressman on Thursday praised Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt for supporting the state’s coal industry and helping to bring a sense of optimism back to the state, even as the Trump administration plans major cuts to programs that help West Virginians.

U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), in comments at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget for the EPA, accused former President Barack Obama of putting “so many people on the unemployment line” in his state.

With Trump as president, coal jobs are returning to West Virginia, Jenkins said. “We have got people going back to work to create a sense of hope and opportunity in their lives. So, I want to thank you for that,” he told Pruitt.

The coal industry nationwide accounted for a total of 51,000 jobs through May, up about 400 jobs from the month before. In the Central Appalachian region, which includes West Virginia’s southern coalfields, the number of coal mining jobs grew from slightly below 15,000 to slightly above that number from January to March.

West Virginian historian Chuck Keeney, who has written extensively on the state’s coal industry and its miners, said he has not seen a noticeable change in the mood of the state’s residents since Trump became president. “A lot of West Virginians understood that they were rolling the dice with Trump,” explained Keeney, a professor of history at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan County, West Virginia.


“I don’t see this sense of hope that Jenkins is talking about. I see it as hyperbole,” Keeney said. Most West Virginians realize “there is not going to be a gigantic return of coal,” he told ThinkProgress.

One sector where the state has seen an upturn is the production of metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. China, for example, has put in numerous orders for metallurgical coal from the United States.

“That’s because Australia was the main supplier into China and that supply was cut off because of a storm that is most likely a direct result of our climate changing, which is incredibly ironic,” Keeney said. “You have climate change causing disruptions in coal markets, which leads to a slight boom in American coal markets.”

However, Keeney predicts the upturn in coal production in his home state, given the volatility of the metallurgical coal market, will be temporary.

“It is entirely possible that Trump’s policies could help create more coal jobs — though many analysts say that’s unlikely because the coal industry is in a structural downturn,” CNBC reported Thursday.

In a research report update issued this week, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy and environment research organization, said that “there is nothing to indicate that jobs recently promised in the U.S. coal industry will be jobs delivered.”


“The U.S. coal industry will continue to decline, and it will continue to shed jobs,” the organization said. “This trend will continue to put communities that are reliant on coal-related economic activity in the position of having to manage a difficult transition.”

According to research from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the region lost a total of 33,500 coal mining jobs between 2011 and 2016. More than 67 percent of these jobs — about 22,500 jobs — occurred in coalfield counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

ARC, a federal-state partnership focused on economic development in the region, supports an average of 500 jobs — representing $15.7 million in annual earnings — in West Virginia. On Wednesday, ARC announced almost $16 million in investments in 18 projects to promote economic growth in coal-impacted communities in West Virginia and other Appalachian states. The investments are expected to create or retain more than 1,700 jobs, the commission said.

But in his FY18 budget, Trump proposed elimination of the commission. Trump also has proposed major cuts to other federal programs upon which many West Virginians rely, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.