2016-11-16 / Front Page

Don’t expect jobs mining coal soon, McConnell warns

President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to roll back environmental regulations and revive the coal industry shouldn’t be taken to mean that miners in eastern Kentucky will be returning to work anytime soon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky Coal Association President Nick Carter have cautioned.

Speaking at a press conference in Louisville late last week, McConnell said it is not clear what effect Trump’s election will have on coal industry employment.

McConnell said he will be “presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end” the so-called “war on coal,” but that “whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”

Carter, the interim president of the coal association, said separately he “would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency.”

“If there is any growth in eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal” instead of a rollback on environmental regulations, Carter told Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Daniel Desrochers.

McConnell and Carter are joined in cautioning against expectations of a quick coal industry revival by economic experts “skeptical that Trump can really bring back a significant number of mining jobs lost largely to competition with low-priced natural gas,” reports Ken Ward for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.

James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law, told Ward, “In my view, the election is not going to have much impact on the prospects for the coal industry in West Virginia going forward. Environmental regulations were not significant drivers in the decline of the industry, and scaling them back is not going to revive it.”

Ward writes, “While the industry’s ‘war on coal’ campaign has focused on Obama’s environmental rules, most experts have said that cheap natural gas has played a larger role. In West Virginia (like eastern Kentucky), the mining out of easier-to-get coal seams in the southern part of the state and competition from other coal basins in Wyoming and Illinois have helped drive the mining downturn.”

“The issues, particularly in the eastern part of Kentucky, are more than the increase of regulations,” Ken Troske, Sturgill Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky, told the Herald-Leader.

Carter, the coal association president, told the Herald-Leader that the low price of natural gas contributes to the lack of demand for coal. “As the energy industry builds new power plants, it’s more likely to build plants that run on natural gas because the price isn’t as high,” Desrochers writes.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the progressive West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said the state’s coal industry is likely to continue to decline, unless Trump or the state Legislature decide to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas or ‘crack down on renewable energy,’” Ward writes.

Boettner also said Trump’s victory could hurt legislative efforts to increase federal aid for economic diversification, cleaning up abandoned mine sites and providing financial stability to the pension funds covering tens of thousands of union coal miners.

“McConnell’s solution isn’t a stimulus plan, although he expects to continue working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that funnels federal money to economically struggling coal communities,” Desrochers writes.

“A government spending program is not likely to solve the fundamental problem of growth,” McConnell said at the Louisville press conference. “…I support the effort to help these coal counties wherever we can but that isn’t going to replace whatever was there when we had a vibrant coal industry.”

McConnell said one of his first orders of business after Trump takes office is to try to convince him to approve construction of the Keystone natural gas pipeline that President Obama has been blocking.

“One thing I do hope he’ll do (is) approve the Keystone pipeline,” Mc- Connell said. “That doesn’t directly affect Kentucky, but talk about anxiety about jobs ….”

Sources for this report include the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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