Is a come­back on tap in coal coun­try?

Trump’s vow to bring back coal gives hope to weary re­gions

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Michael Vir­ta­nen and Matthew Brown

WIL­LIAMSON, W.VA. >> 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 mine-own­ing bil­lion­aire, Demo­crat Jim Jus­tice, as gov­er­nor.

But a lot of peo­ple had gone un­der al­ready.

“Lost my home, ve­hi­cle, ev­ery­thing,” said Roger Prater. Wear­ing the miner’s tell­tale blue pants with re­flec­tive strips on the legs, Prater would be head­ing un­der­ground that night. He’d 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.”

In Jan­uary, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — prompted in part by con­cerns about cli­mate change — im­posed a mora­to­rium on new lease

sales pend­ing a three-year re­view of the fed­eral coal pro­gram. Trump has vowed to re­scind the mora­to­rium, which could open huge coal re­serves.

Burn­ing them would un­leash an es­ti­mated 3.4 bil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide — equiv­a­lent to a year’s worth of emis­sions from 700 mil­lion cars, ac­cord­ing to En­vi­ron­men­tal Protection Agency cal­cu­la­tions. But Trump has promised, too, to roll back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, emis­sions re­stric­tions that would make it more ex­pen­sive for util­i­ties to use the fuel.

Such pro­pos­als would “level the play­ing field for coal,” al­low­ing it to bet­ter com­pete with nat­u­ral gas and re­new­able en­er­gies, said coal an­a­lyst Andy Roberts with the firm Wood Macken­zie.

Yet 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.

But Hitt said en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists would be naive to think they’ve won.

“The coal in­dus­try is go­ing to have friends in high places,” she said.

In West Vir­ginia, Jus­tice re­opened four of his mines this month, say­ing they’ll pro­vide 375 jobs, be­fore be­ing elected gov­er­nor. They pro­duce met­al­lur­gi­cal coal for mak­ing steel; its price has risen sharply with lower Chi­nese pro­duc­tion. Jus­tice ac­knowl­edged dur­ing cam­paign­ing that the coal busi­ness is tough — min­ing jobs in the state fell to about 15,000 last year, with 7,000 gone since 2008 — but said he be­lieves it will help power the U.S. econ­omy and West Vir­ginia’s fu­ture.

“You’re go­ing to see more min­ers go back to work in West Vir­ginia to some level,” he said.

On Sat­ur­day, Jus­tice said he and Trump talked for 15 min­utes about ef­forts to put min­ers back to work. He didn’t dis­close specifics.

For now, Wil­liamson re­sem­bles the small Rust Belt cities of the North af­ter fac­to­ries closed, leav­ing empty store­fronts and side­walks. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, a young man stood on the city bridge over the Tug Fork, which mostly sep­a­rates south­ern West Vir­ginia from Ken­tucky, hold­ing a sign ask­ing for help.

Greg Blanken­ship from Pike County, Ken­tucky, across the river, lost his $50,000-a-year min­ing job in 2009 and got a lower-pay­ing county job months later. His fa­ther made a good liv­ing as a miner and raised three kids. At 44, Blanken­ship hopes Trump’s elec­tion means he’ll be able to go back but says he knows “the pres­i­dent can’t do ev­ery­thing.”

He’s right: Trump won’t con­trol the eco­nom­ics of low nat­u­ral gas prices or slow global growth, two big fac­tors hurt­ing coal de­mand, said John De­skins, di­rec­tor of the West Vir­ginia Univer­sity Bureau of Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search. Trump will have some con­trol over en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, but it’s not clear how much.

Gary Chap­man, 25, has worked right along for al­most eight years, sur­viv­ing seven lay­offs, though he’d been down to four shifts a week. He re­turned to five or six shifts, in­clud­ing over­time, days be­fore the elec­tion.

“I be­lieve they’ll bring a lot of it back,” he said. “Do I be­lieve it will be what it used to be? No. It’ll never be that again.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A mech­a­nized shovel loads coal from an 80-feet thick seam into a haul truck at Cloud Peak En­ergy’s Spring Creek mine near Decker, Mont., on Nov. 15. Coal from the mine is shipped to power plants for gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A wagon load of vet­er­ans are driven through town Nov. 11 dur­ing the Vet­er­ans Day pa­rade in Mate­wan, W.Va.

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