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Trump, the Coal Worker Con

Coal jobs are not coming back and Trump has done, and will do, nothing to change this

Brian Young's picture
Apr 06, 2017

One of Trumps biggest campaign promises of the 2016 election was that he would bring back coal jobs. He went across the mostly poor Coal Country promising that he had a plan to restore this dying industry.  Once again, being his dishonest self, Trump failed to understand the market factors in why coal is dying.

Coal’s main use is as fuel for power plants.  For 135 years, coal was the main power source for our country.  Between the 1930’s and the late 1990’s it was a great investment opportunity thanks to regulation.  An investor could expect a 5% return every year, leading to stagnation in the industry.  Plants continued to pump out power and investors got rich. Investors would do everything they could to keep the plants running, including spending lots of money to keep them repaired. This led to the prevalence of old, low powered coal plants across the country.

Then in the late 90’s coal power plants became deregulated and the automatic profits went away.  This caused investors to start looking at the bottom line to gain more profits. In the quest for higher profits, investors stopped maintaining coal plants and the 60 year old plants began to fall into disarray.  According to a Coal Plant Union leader who asked to remain anonymous, between the late 90’s and 2009, many of the coal plants closed down thank to disrepair and the fact that many were smaller and less efficient - causing smaller profits. It was cheaper to close the plant down and build a natural gas plant next to it then to repair them and upgrade them to meet environmental standards.

Coal plants are extremely labor intensive and how they operate are greatly misunderstood   This is one of the reasons why coal jobs were good talking points for billionaire opportunist Trump.  He is a master at manipulating, and he did just that to the unemployed coal plant worker.

 A coal plant that produces 2,000 Mega Watts of power might need to employee 150 people who work directly at the plant, were as a natural gas plant that 1,000 Mega Watts of power only needs 30 people.  Beyond the people who work in the plant, coal also requires miners, drivers and train operators to bring the coal from the mountain to the coal yard to the plant. Since coal is very corrosive, it also has a high maintenance cost throughout the entire process. A coal plant would provide jobs for not only mine workers, but Teamsters, Boilermakers and the IBEW in both construction and inside the plant. All a natural gas plant needs to get fuel is a 10 inch pipe.

The simple fact is that coal plants have a limited use in today’s day and age.  According to the coal plant union leader, whose members were duped into voting for Trump, the only time coal is absolutely necessary is in the dead of winter.  This is due to natural gas companies being forced to supply home heating oil first, causing the pressure in the pipeline to be reduced. Thus causes natural gas power plants to not be able to get enough fuel; but he says as more compressor stations are built - this need will be reduced as well.  Once that happens it’s lights out for the coal industry.

Even within the mines, coal jobs are changing.  No longer is a coal miner a person who walks into a mine with a pick ax that he swings all day.  Now they are machine operators, controlling large mining machines.  On NPR, Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said that even 20 years ago when he was serving in President Clinton’s cabinet, coal miners were already high tech workers and that this technology was already increasing productivity while killing jobs in the coal industry.  Even if coal usage increases it is unlikely that coal jobs as you once thought existed will ever come back. A coal worker who voted for Trump cast their ballot on false hope, and they deserve our pity, and not our resentment.

 

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