Heather Scott –
When Donald Trump promised hopeful voters in Charleston, West Virginia to bring back mining jobs to the heart of American coal country, out-of-work miner Craig Branham was all ears.
Three months into Trump’s presidency, Branham has been rehired, as have many of his friends in Mingo County on the border with Kentucky — as previously-idled mines reopen or working ones expand operations.
Things are looking up, and Branham believes his change of fortune is down to the Republican leader, who won a resounding 68 per cent of the vote in West Virginia, once a reliably Democratic state.
“So far Trump is keeping his promises.
I mean we see a whole lot happening, just because he is in office,” he said.
“And we think we have a little bit of hope.”
Trump had blamed the decline in coal jobs on Obama-era environmental rules, and one of his first acts as president was to reverse clean water and air rules coal companies complained about.
The uptick in mining jobs began before the Republican took office: about 700 were added in the final three months of 2016, and the small increase appears to have continued into early this year.
But can coal really hope for a lasting revival in West Virginia?
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, is upbeat.
He says regulatory “overreach” by the previous administration “paralysed the coal industry,” but that since the start of the year “the attitude has been very, very positive.”
Economists are not so optimistic: many say the gains are illusory — and warn against equating a small, short-term improvement with a genuine resurgence.
“The chances of it coming back are slim to none,” summed up Ted Boettner, head of the West Virginia Centre on Budget and Policy.
“I think people were very hopeful that President Trump would be able to do that. They might have rose-coloured lenses. We just go by the numbers.”
Despite Trump’s promises, mining employment in West Virginia has been shrinking for decades: it topped out at 125,000 in 1948 and is down to less than 13,000.
West Virginia’s coal production last year was the lowest since the late 1800s.
The mountainous state just west of the nation’s capital, with a population of just under two million, has unique characteristics that made it more vulnerable to downturns than other coal mining states.
Perhaps most important is that it has little economic diversity to cushion it from changes in the once-dominant industry.
It is one of the only US states where the population is falling, as those who are able, especially the highly educated, leave in search of opportunity elsewhere.
The labour force has shrunk from 820,000 at the start of 2009 to just over 780,000 at the start of this year.
With few other businesses hiring, health care is now the state’s biggest industry, with about five times as many workers as coal.
For Elias Johnson of the Energy Information Administration’s coal and uranium analysis team, West Virginia’s biggest challenge stems from “the economics of mining production.”
Mining has been going on for well over 100 years, “so all of the coal that’s cheap or easy to get to has been mined and it’s costing more and more” to pull out what’s left, Johnson said.
Most mines in West Virginia are underground — as opposed to the far cheaper surface mining practiced in western states like Wyoming.
That type of mining, including mountain-top removal — which faces stiff opposition from communities in West Virginia — is highly mechanised and requires far fewer workers.
“In Wyoming, once you’ve exposed the seam of coal, it’s basically bulldozer and dump truck,” Johnson said.
But for West Virginia, “the greatest single factor, has been competition with natural gas.” The fracking boom has drastically lowered prices, leading natural gas to overtake thermal coal in US electricity generation, shrinking the share of coal to 30 per cent.— AFP