The hard-eyed view along the Tug Fork River in West Virginia coal country is that President-elect Donald Trump has something to prove: that he’ll help bring back Appalachian mining, as he promised time and again on the campaign trail. Nobody thinks he can revive it entirely — not economists, not ex-miners, not even those recently called back to work.
But for the first time in years, coal towns are seeing a commodity that had grown scarcer than the coal trains that used to rumble through around the clock: hope.
Around here that hope is measured. Still, most voters saw Trump as the only choice for president. He vowed to undo looming federal rules and said President Barack Obama had been “ridiculous” to the industry. Trump told miners in Charleston: “We’re going to take care of years of horrible abuse. I guarantee it.”
West Virginians went all in, backing Trump and electing a coal mineowning billionaire, Democrat Jim Justice, as governor.
But a lot of people had gone under already.
“Lost my home, vehicle, everything,” said Roger Prater, who had been laid off for 20 months but now benefits from a small hiring surge that started before the election.
At 31, Prater said he can get everything back, but he’s uncertain for how long.
“In Trump’s term, I feel we’ll do good, but after that who’s to say?” he said.
That skepticism is supported by industry analysts, who say any recovery won’t be centered in the eastern coalfields of Kentucky and West Virginia and will never bring U.S. coal back to what it once was.
Last year, the nation had about 66,000 coal mining jobs — the lowest since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began counting in 1978. That’s down 20,000 since a high point in 2008, and preliminary data show 10,000 more lost this year.
Mines out west stand to gain the most under Trump because of the huge reserves beneath public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah.
At the Wolf Mountain Coal company near Decker, Montana, superintendent Dave Bettcher said he’s been praying Trump can do just that.
Wolf Mountain gets coal from the nearby Spring Creek strip mine, where operator Cloud Peak Energy has cut workforce and production. Wolf Mountain’s 20 workers still have jobs, but Bettcher said eight years of anti-coal leadership in Washington have left the industry in peril.
“I believe in the guy,” Bettcher said of Trump as a conveyor belt dumped coal into a truck bound for North Dakota. “If he can hold up his end, he’s going to help a lot of people.”
Industry executives expect that pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will continue.
“It can’t just be, ‘We’re going to get rid of these regulations, and you guys can party until the next administration comes,’” Cloud Peak Energy Vice President Richard Reavey said. “There are serious global concerns about climate emissions. We have to recognize that’s a political reality and work within that framework.”
Owners of more than 200 coal plants, almost half the nation’s total, plan to retire the facilities by 2025, said Mary Ann Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign. That trend is unlikely to be reversed, she said, with wind and solar power becoming more cost effective and natural gas offering a cheap alternative.