Many times during the campaign, candidate Donald Trump pledged to bring back coal and put thousands of unemployed miners back to work. Now those miners and their families and communities expect President-elect Trump to make good on his promise.
He can’t do it simply by rolling back some environmental regulations. As many mine owners have stated, and as we and others have reported, Appalachian coal simply can’t compete against cheap, abundant natural gas. That would be true even if the Environmental Protection Agency had its enforcement budget slashed to zero on January 21. Politicians who claim that an unshackled marketplace will revive the coal industry are conning themselves and their constituents.
There’s only one sure way for President Trump to make good on his pledge to America’s miners. That’s to demand — and get Congress to enact — a clean-coal research and development project comparable to the wartime Manhattan Project that created nuclear energy from scratch.
Once President Roosevelt wrote “OK FDR” on the proposal submitted to him in mid-1942, the top-secret Manhattan Project needed only 36 months to move the world’s first nuclear weapon from raw concept to devastating reality. The accelerated development of the nuclear energy industry would never have happened if it had had to compete on a cost basis against other fuels. But it didn’t.
At the outset nobody asked for cost/benefit calculations and there were no political constraints. The project was given a blank check.
“Just do it,” the scientists were told (anticipating Nike’s famous slogan by several decades). Cost? Whatever it takes.
The U.S. would have to adopt a similar approach in order to develop something approximating genuinely clean coal-based energy within the next few years. Any thought of trying to keep costs competitive would have to be set aside.
We’d just do it, if necessary justifying the cost as a matter of national security. And then start hiring miners by the thousand, not by a few here and there.
Whatever its merits, if any, this isn’t a new idea. Forty years ago, in 1976, a representative of the United Mine Workers of America accepted an invitation to meet with Jimmy Carter, then running for president, to discuss the glacial pace of clean-coal research. The nation’s challenge then was to reduce dependence on Middle East oil, at a time when artificially jacked-up oil prices had profoundly battered the U.S. economy. Candidate Carter, suggesting that the U.S. faced an energy emergency as serious as if we were at war, listened to an informal proposal for a Manhattan Project for coal while taking copious notes on a yellow legal pad… and that was the end of that.
Forty years later, is the notion of a Manhattan Project for coal visionary or hopelessly far-fetched? It’s the only scenario with a prayer of bringing back coal in a meaningful way. As an investment in infrastructure it would put countless Americans to work, fulfilling a core campaign pledge — but it would also cost billions upon billions of dollars. To pay for it, President Trump would have to ask Congress to raise taxes on the corporations and citizens most able to pay.
Now try getting that past Mitch McConnell.
End of daydream. Sad to say, it’s way more realistic to ramp up plans for a post-coal economy.