Will Coal Miners Stand by Trump as Jobs Disappear?
By Oliver Milman
Art Sullivan is considered something of a political heretic by other coal miners in south-western Pennsylvania, where a wave of support for Donald Trump based upon his flamboyant promises of a resurgence in coal helped propel the Republican to the U.S. presidency.
"Many of my coal miner friends voted for him," said Sullivan, who has spent 54 years as a coal miner and, more latterly, consultant to a struggling industry. "They were deceived. Trump had no plan, no concept of how to resurrect the coal industry. My friends were lied to."
Sullivan's friends may disagree with this assessment but the coal comeback promised by Trump in the 2016 election campaign has failed to materialize, with his first term studded with bankruptcies and closures of mines and coal-fired power plants.
There are now about 5,000 fewer miners than when Trump strode into the White House. The coronavirus pandemic has turbo-charged the decline – so far this year U.S. coal production has collapsed by more than 25% compared with the same period in 2019.
It has been a bruising few years rather than the glorious new dawn promised when Trump donned a miner's helmet, mimed digging coal and excoriated Barack Obama's "war on coal" on the campaign trail four years ago. One of Trump's first executive orders removed a ban on coal mining on federal land and dumped Obama's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Come on, fellas," said Trump at the order's signing, where he was surrounded by beaming miners. "Basically, you know what this is? You know what it says, right? You're going back to work."
Such assurances were eagerly accepted by coal mining communities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky who backed Trump and prepared for salvation. "When he came into office, it was like someone pulled their finger out of the dyke," said Thomas McLoughlin, a former mine inspector who trains new miners. "I was flooded with new mining students. It was overwhelming." McLoughlin said he would vote for the president again because Trump was the only candidate prepared to stand up for coal workers. "My business won't go under if he's re-elected," he added.
The Trump administration has set about weakening or scrapping a slew of environmental rules that bound the industry, such as requirements that new coal-fired power plants capture their carbon emissions and that coal firms do not release wastewater laced with dangerous pollutants, such as lead, selenium and arsenic, into rivers and streams.
Bob Murray, a major Trump donor and founder of the largest private coal company in the U.S., has boasted of an "action plan" he gave the administration to undo what he called "eight years of pure hell" under Obama. Much of Murray's three-and-a-half-page wishlist has been ticked off, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. A particular prize was a weakening of Obama-era standards to reduce mercury pollution from coal plants, a rollback undertaken after Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, became administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are still feeling the effects of the damage from the Obama administration," said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The social devastation in mining communities has been breathtaking. The support for Donald Trump is as strong if not stronger than in 2016. West Virginia is a Democratic state that has been dyed deep red because of the last administration."
But while Appalachia will largely stick with Trump in 2020, more coal capacity has been retired under Trump than during Obama's second term. "Coal's not back," as Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, glumly conceded last year. "Nobody saved the coal industry."
Coal production fell so sharply last year that renewable energy such as solar and wind overtook it in electricity generation for the first time since at least 1885, the year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, America's first skyscraper was erected in Chicago and people were burning more wood than coal. Last year also saw Murray Energy file for bankruptcy, one of half a dozen coal companies to do so that year.
Cheap, abundant gas, retrieved via fracking, and the advance of renewables have been greater causes of coal's demise than any green regulation, experts say, rendering Trump's rollbacks simply environmentally destructive.
"The fall of coal is first and foremost a market story," said Daniel Kaffine, a University of Colorado economist who has researched the issue. "The days of coal supplying the majority of U.S. electricity production are not coming back." While metallurgical coal – needed for the making of steel – will hang on, the practice of burning thermal coal for energy is in "a death spiral," Kaffine said.
There are about 45,000 coal miners left in the U.S., half the number employed during Obama's first term. Plenty of political rhetoric surrounds a workforce that is actually quite small – there are double the number of flight attendants in the U.S. than coal miners, for example, and roughly the same number of chiropractors.
Whole communities sprang up around mining, however, meaning several dependent jobs are lost for each miner put out of work. The long decline of well-paying mining jobs, through machinery automation and now creeping obsolescence, has left deep scars in Appalachian towns now blighted by unemployment and opioid addiction.
"People drank Trump's Kool-Aid and he hasn't done it for them," said Blair Zimmerman, a former coal miner who is now commissioner of Greene county, Pennsylvania. "I'm very worried about the future because without mining, our tax base would go and we couldn't survive. People are leaving the area, it's tough. We should have looked at other options a long time ago."
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has outlined a $2tn plan to generate millions of jobs in renewable energy, potentially providing a new path for threatened coal workers. But coal mining has deep roots in communities that many are unwilling to relinquish. "It's a damned joke," said Bostic, of the West Virginia Coal Association. "It's an affront to a coal miner to say: 'We will take your job away for one that pays less well, and by the way, you have to pack your family up and move.'"
According to Sullivan, coal miners feel they have little choice. "The coal miner had no friends and was desperate," he said. "No one was speaking for us and then Trump was, so people backed him. Miners see him as their guy."
The externalities of coal reach far beyond mining communities, however. As the most carbon-intensive of fuels, coal is a key driver of the climate crisis, indirectly spurring the sorts of huge wildfires that have ravaged the U.S. west coast this year, as well as the continuing deterioration of the polar ice sheets that imperil coastal cities through sea level rise and storms.
Direct air pollution from the soot and chemicals given off by burned coal is also a major health burden. Not far from Sullivan and his friends, the Cheswick power plant, close to the banks of the Allegheny River, is close enough to people's homes that nearby residents have to wipe the coal soot from their houses. Five miles downstream towards Pittsburgh, in the suburb of Verona, Laura Jacko suspects emissions from the power plant could be behind her husband's asthma and the breathing problems suffered by her son, who was born prematurely.
"There is nothing more horrifying than holding down your small baby to shove a breathing machine into them," Jacko said. "It affects me personally and I get pretty angry about it."
Environmental groups have long pushed for the closure of Cheswick, which has previously been handed a civil penalty for breaching pollution limits. In Jacko's view, the era of coal needs to come to a managed but swift end. "My uncle was a coal worker and had black lung," a disease that develops from inhaling coal dust, she said. "I don't want their jobs to kill them. I want them to transition. These jobs are going away, it's just a matter of when. Pushing ahead with coal does everyone a disservice."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
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