Leaders of West Virginia’s coal industry were rejoicing Wednesday over the election of Republican Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president — and the possible regulatory rollbacks that may come with it — but industry and economic experts remained skeptical that Trump can really bring back a significant number of mining jobs lost largely to competition with low-priced natural gas.
“The heartland and coal country still matter in this great nation,” the industry group Friends of Coal said on its Facebook page. “Your way of life still matters.”
Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray said that he expects Trump to “surround himself with the very best people to fix the many problems facing our country” and that Trump “will finally implement a national energy policy whereby all energy sources will compete on a level playing field.”
“This is a great day for America,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “This is also a great day for coal miners and their families.”
Murray has been among the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration’s environmental policies, which the coal industry has tried to portray as the most significant factor in a mining decline that has cost thousands of jobs, especially in Southern West Virginia’s coalfield communities.
In a follow-up statement, Murray said the election was a defeat for “the liberal elitists on Wall Street and in Hollywood” and said that Trump “has a mandate” — the word was underlined in the statement — “to carry out all of the policies that he said he would implement during his campaign.”
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton for the presidency by winning 279 electoral votes, to Clinton’s 228. The latest results on Wednesday showed that Clinton edged out Trump in the popular vote, with 59.8 million votes to Trump’s 59.6 million, a margin of 0.2 percentage points.
Only four times in history has a president won the Electoral College, but not also carried the popular vote. Three of those elections occurred prior to 1900, with the most recent one being in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount of votes in Florida, giving the Electoral College victory to Republican George W. Bush.
In its own statement on Wednesday, the National Mining Association congratulated Trump on his victory and noted that, “a robust mining industry is only possible with reasonable laws and regulations that balance costs with benefits in pursuit of reasonable goals.”
But a variety of regulatory rollbacks, with repealing limits on power plant greenhouse emissions chief above them, is unlikely to bring a coal boom that would rescue the state’s coalfield communities, said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law.
“In my view, the election is not going to have much impact on the prospects for the coal industry in West Virginia going forward,” Van Nostrand said this morning. “Environmental regulations were not significant drivers in the decline of the industry, and scaling them back is not going to revive it.”
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, 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.
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.”
The Trump victory, Boettner said, could also jeopardize broader efforts — which have bipartisan support from West Virginia’s congressional delegation — to provide huge increases in federal help for economic diversification efforts in the state, as well as for cleaning up abandoned mine sites and providing financial stability to the pension funds covering tens of thousands of union coal miners. Trump has talked little — if at all — about those efforts, leaving their future “unclear with the new administration and GOP leadership,” Boettner said.
The United Mine Workers union, which did not endorse a presidential candidate for the second general election in a row, issued a statement in which UMW President Cecil Roberts said that if Trump wants to address “the serious economic disaster that is affecting large areas of Appalachia and other coal-producing regions,” the first step toward doing so is “to ensure that the health care and pensions thousands of retirees worked their entire lives for are preserved.”
Clinton had announced support for a bipartisan UMW-based bill to bail out the union’s troubled health care and pension plans, but Trump said little — if anything — about it during his campaign. Roberts said the union needs action on the legislation before the end of the year, though. Trump won’t take office until Jan. 20, but the GOP leadership in the Senate would have to decide to put the bill to a floor vote for it to be approved during the lame-duck session of Congress.
Trump most certainly has made clear his intention to reverse the Obama administration’s policy priorities that aimed to take action to try to slow climate change and encourage the growth of cleaner energy sources such as renewable solar and wind power. In the coming months, Trump will consider an ultimately hire appointees to run a collection of federal agencies that regulate coal’s impact on the environment, workers, and communities.
“The new administration will possess broad authority to choose the manner and strictness of enforcement of environmental and safety laws,” said Patrick McGinley, a longtime WVU environmental law professor and an expert on the regulation of coal mining.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is awaiting a federal appeals court ruling on a legal challenge, brought by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and others, to Obama’s “Clean Power Plan,” a rule to curb emissions of greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.
A ruling in the case could come within the next few months, but no matter how the case turns out, an EPA run by an eventual Trump appointee could reverse the rule. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the energy and environmental portion of Trump’s transition team is led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, who the Post noted “has been a skeptic about climate change and has called many mainstream climate studies false.”
“It is our hope that the [EPA] regulation will be withdrawn after Donald Trump takes office,” said Morrisey, who won re-election Tuesday to a second term. “We believe that should preclude the need for further litigation, we will need to discuss the mechanics with the new administration to determine how we will proceed.”
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Wednesday that his organization hopes the Trump administration will re-examine a variety of Obama administration regulations, enforcement policies and other initiatives. He noted specifically the federal Office of Surface Mining’s proposed “stream protection rule,” a fairly moderate OSM initiative to rewrite a regulation that — had it ever been fully enforced — would have reduced the amount of Appalachian streams buried by mountaintop removal valley fills.
Raney said that industry’s goal is to find workable rules mining companies can live with, not to gut essential standards.
“I don’t think there will be any step back as far as environmental protection, and certainly not on safety,” Raney said. “But just a change of heart about fossil fuels is very encouraging.”
Trump, though, hinted during his campaign that he was concerned about stories he heard from the mining industry about overly aggressive federal safety inspectors, and Raney confirmed that the industry would like to see the new administration re-examine some U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration efforts, such as new rules aimed at limiting miner exposure to black lung disease and requiring “proximity detection” technologies that shut off underground mining equipment when it gets too close to workers, a rule that MSHA says would help end one of the most common causes of serious injuries and deaths.
“I think all of those things would be subject to review,” Raney said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.