Shortly after 9:30 in the morning on April 29, 2016, a loud boom thundered through western Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Near the top of the narrow valley, a 14-story-high concrete coal silo sagged, then crumpled to the ground, seeming to dissolve into clouds of black and grey smoke. For decades, the coal mine that filled the silo had employed most of the people in the surrounding town, but in recent years activity at the mine had slowed and, finally, stopped, leaving a skeleton crew of just four. In 10 minutes, the silo demolition confirmed what many had long feared: The Oxbow Mine and its well-paying jobs had left the valley for good.
I lived in the North Fork Valley for 15 years, and in the late 2000's, when cheap natural gas hit the domestic coal market, I saw—and in some cases felt—the local effects. Hundreds of miners lost their jobs, as did many who depended on their business. Families were uprooted, and some rural schools lost so many students that they struggled to stay open. The hardship was real, and the fear and anger were, too.
On May 4, less than a week after the Oxbow coal silo was blasted into rubble and grit, Donald Trump held a campaign rally at the Charleston Civic Center in West Virginia. He put on a hard hat, pantomimed shovelling coal, and praised miners’ courage and dedication. “If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back,” he told his audience. “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete—so we’re going to take all that off the table, folks.” During the general election campaign this summer, Trump repeatedly told supporters that he would “end the war on coal.” His listeners cheered, and their enthusiasm helped tip the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio toward Trump.
In Poca, West Virginia, a high school team practices football near a coal-fired plant that powers nearly two million homes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBB KENDRICK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Less than 72 hours after President-elect Trump’s victory speech in New York City, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned his Kentucky constituents that it was “hard to tell” whether regulatory rollbacks would create more mining jobs. Coal mining, as he gingerly reminded them, was “a private-sector activity,” driven primarily by market supply and demand.
Industry representatives agree: Terry Headley of the American Coal Council calls the election “the first ray of hope we’ve seen in years,” but warns Trump’s supporters in coal country that there are no guarantees. “I’d caution them that it’s going to take time,” he says. “Many of these jobs will not be back, definitely not in the short run.”
The Trump transition team’s current statement on “Energy Independence” pledges to end the Obama Administration’s moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, to block a proposed Interior Department rule designed to strengthen protection of streams from coal-mining waste, and to scrap a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that extends Clean Water Act protections to headwater streams and wetlands. While following through on these pledges could well increase coal production and profits for the domestic coal industry—on November 9, the share price of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal producer, jumped 50 percent—they’re not enough to bring lasting prosperity back to coal country.
Over the past 35 years, the number of jobs in U.S. coal mines has declined from about 250,000 to 50,000, partly because coal mines now use more outside suppliers, and partly because they’re far more mechanized. In the late 2000s, when a boom in domestic natural gas production—enabled by hydraulic fracturing technology—radically reduced demand for electricity produced from coal, the long decline in employment turned into a freefall.
Some 300 coal-fired power plants have closed in the U.S. since 2008. Regulatory relief has little chance of reversing this trend, especially since Trump has also proposed to loosen regulations governing domestic oil and gas production. “I suspect there is no fuel for which the Trump victory will be more irrelevant than for coal,” David Victor, an energy expert at the University of California, San Diego observed a few days after the election.
While Trump’s proposed energy policies are unlikely to deliver on his promises to coal miners, they may well hobble progress in renewable-energy technologies at home and abroad, missing opportunities for job growth in new industries and continuing to destabilise the global climate. Trump has been harshly critical of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a set of Environmental Protection Agency rules designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants by 32 percent.
The plan, one of the nation’s first substantive steps toward mitigating climate change, is being challenged in court, and its ultimate fate could be decided by a Trump appointee to the Supreme Court. Though some power companies have already begun to comply with the CPP, assuming that they will eventually be subject to emissions restrictions, the plan’s demise could slow the decline of coal—and the country’s transition to lower-carbon fuels.
Amid the soot-covered stalks of last year's corn, a farmer prepares for spring near a coal-fired power plant in Shanxi Province, China.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBB KENDRICK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that coal burning would decline sharply in the first years after the CPP takes effect, as more power plants convert to gas. Then it would flatten out at a level about 20 percent lower than it would be if there were no carbon-emission limits. Demand for electricity keeps rising, in the EIA analysis—but it is met by a surge in wind and solar power.
The incoming Trump Administration could further slow this low-carbon transition by cutting funds for research and development of renewable technologies. Though gas-fired power plants do emit less carbon dioxide than coal plants, recent research suggests that because of the methane emissions associated with natural gas production, gas may not be significantly better for the climate than coal. Renewables, meanwhile, are more affordable than ever, but they can’t yet match the flexibility and reliability of power produced from coal and natural gas.
Trump has stated that he would “cancel” the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted in late 2015 and now signed by 193 countries. Neither Trump nor anyone else has the power to single-handedly cancel the agreement, but his administration could ignore U.S. commitments. Those include not only reduction of domestic emissions but also substantial funding for low-carbon power sources in developing countries—many of which remain reliant on their own deposits of cheap, readily available coal.
In the weeks since the election, many countries, including China, have said they will meet their emissions-reductions commitments regardless of U.S. participation in the agreement. As with the Clean Power Plan, opposition from the Trump Administration probably won’t halt progress on emissions reduction, but the loss of leadership is likely to slow it down—meaning that the world will burn more coal than it would otherwise, especially in developing countries, and that more people will suffer the already painfully evident effects of climate change.
On November 8, coal miners from Colorado to Pennsylvania voted for a candidate who promised to revive their livelihoods. But Trump might as well have promised to reassemble the obliterated coal silo outside the Oxbow Mine. For no matter what he does as president to “end the war on coal,” there’s no returning to the past. The only choice—and it’s a fateful one—is how quickly we as a nation, and we as a planet, move toward a low-carbon future.