The Paris Accord Withdrawal Is a Win For the Coal Industry. But It Probably Won’t Bring Back Jobs
In May of 2016, Donald Trump stood before a cheering crowd in Charleston, West Virginia. “I am thinking about the miners all over this country,” he said at the time. He had just effectively clinched the Republican nomination, and signs of “Trump digs coal” were peppered throughout the crowd. “We’re going to put the miners back to work. We are going to get those mines open.”
Trump’s message clearly resonated; he won nine of the ten states with the highest coal production in the United States last November, easily sweeping Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, the top three spots on the list.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, which he will announce at the White House Rose Garden Thursday, is being billed as a way to turn those words into action.
“This is a step to fulfilling some of the promises that he [President Trump] made,” said Tyler White, President of the Coal Association in Kentucky, which has lost over 25,000 coal jobs since 2011.
There is shaky evidence, however, that withdrawing from this agreement will give people employed in the mining industry what they want: more jobs.
Trump has already signed an Executive Order on Energy Independence mandating that federal agencies review President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce carbon emissions 32% by 2030, largely by replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas and renewable energy sources.
The Clean Power Plan was the key policy that allowed President Obama to commit to the world under the Paris Agreement that the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28% by 2025, but the framers of the Paris Agreement and other environmental attorneys say Trump could have simply revised the U.S. emissions reductions targets downward if he eliminates the Clean Power Plan.
Still, for members of the coal industry and lawmakers in states with high coal production who argued against regulations of the Clean Power Plan—over 25 states and the largest coal company in the private sector filed a lawsuit against the plan and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said the regulations “damaged the way of life” in his state—leaving the Paris Agreement is welcome news.
“We urge you to make a clean exit from the Paris Agreement so that your administration can follow through on it’s commitment to rescind the Clean Power plan,” 22 Republican Senators wrote in a May 25th letter to the President.
All of these Senators represent states Trump won in the 2016 election. Four were from the coal-heavy states Wyoming and Kentucky. A representative for Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi confirmed that he “certainly thinks that rolling back the Paris Agreement will be beneficial to coal workers in Wyoming and America.”
Like these Senators White said the biggest benefit for Kentucky that would come out of this would be the rollback of the CPP. The Kentucky coal community, he said, is still hopeful in the ability to restore confidence in coal, noting that even though jobs were shed in the first quarter of 2017, there was a half point uptick in production.
“We’re still trying to stop the bleeding,” White explained. He said he was open to increasing opportunities in the natural gas and renewable energy sectors, which many experts argue is more realistic than revitalizing coal, but he wants to ensure the sustainability of his industry. “We see us moving in the right direction under the administration which is comforting.”
But experts say larger market forces—like the increasing use of natural gas and renewable energy—will prevail.
“It will have zero impact,” James Van Nostrand, a law professor at West Virginia University and the Director of the school’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, said of Trump’s decision. “Environmental regulations have a small impact on economics. You make environmental regulations go away, it doesn’t change anything at all.”
In 2015, coal production dropped 10.3% to its lowest level since 1986, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual coal report published last November. That same year, the average number of employees at U.S. mines decreased 12%, the lowest number since the agency began collecting information in 1978.
“It was a con when he made that promise,” Van Nostrand said of Trump. “The coal jobs aren’t coming back.”