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How Americans Stopped Caring About Coal

Even Trump barely talks about it anymore.

A coal mining voter.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The future of coal played a starring role in the 2016 presidential election. As an industry, an energy supply, and a source of jobs and identity in many communities, coal was both a practical and symbolic issue, one that helped solidify Donald Trump’s support among white working class voters not just in coal country itself but around the nation. It stood in for a deep divide between the parties, one that cast Trump as the champion of what he called “the forgotten men and women of our country,” while Hillary Clinton and her party were supposedly cruel elitists ready to condemn those Americans to a future of deprivation in pursuit of a radical and ruinous environmental agenda.

Eight years later, the future of coal — or more specifically, the shape and speed of its demise — is being decided through administration policy and the workings of the market. But on the campaign trail, no one is talking about it. Coal has almost disappeared as a political issue.

To understand why, we have to begin in that 2016 campaign. In May of that year, Hillary Clinton came to Williamson, West Virginia to make amends. Less than two months before, she had said in a CNN town hall that “we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” generating enormous backlash despite the fact that she was touting her plan to “bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country.” Now, at a forum held just a couple of blocks from the famous Williamson Coal House (a building made entirely from coal), a former coal company employee asked her, “How you can say you are going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you are going to be our friends?”

Clinton insisted her remarks had been taken out of context. “I’m here because I want you to know whether people vote for me or not whether they yell at me or not, it’s not going to affect what I can do to help because I feel like that’s a moral obligation,” she said.

Trump was far less nuanced in his approach to what he called “beautiful clean coal.” His message was simple: Elect me, and all the lost coal jobs will return. “For those miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off,” he said at a rally in West Virginia. “I love the miners, and we're going to put the miners back to work,” he said at another.

It worked: Trump’s biggest margins of victory came in the two states with the highest coal production, Wyoming and West Virginia.

And he certainly tried to save the coal industry. He withdrew from the Paris climate accords, rolled back environmental regulations on coal, installed coal industry executives and lobbyists in key administration positions, encouraged coal mining on federal lands, undid the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and tried to bail out failing coal plants.

But none of that brought back the coal jobs. Total coal mining employment in the U.S. stayed at the same level for the first four years of his presidency — around 53,000 — then fell by 20%in his final year, during the Covid pandemic. Today that figure is around 43,000, a miniscule number given the size of our economy; more Americans work at the Cheesecake Factory than in the entire coal mining industry. That may be the first reason Trump isn’t talking about coal on the campaign trail: He didn’t keep his most high-profile promise.

Yet in coal country, Trump was not punished for his failure to bring back the coal jobs. Williamson, where Hillary Clinton made her 2016 mea culpa, provides a perfect example. With a population of 3,000, it’s the largest city in Mingo County, whose population has shrunk in every Census since the one in 1990. It’s a place with deep economic and health-care challenges, where coal is woven throughout the local identity and sense of place (the high school’s sports teams are called the Miners and Lady Miners).

According to the most recent report from the state of West Virginia, in 2022 there were only 409 people working in coal in Mingo County, or about 3% of the working-age population. In 2016, Trump got 83%of the vote there. In 2020, despite not bringing back the jobs, he got 85%. Voters there didn’t seem to care that Trump didn’t revive the industry. Or maybe it was never really about anything so concrete and practical.

Which brings us to the second reason coal may be fading as a campaign issue: What it represents to the country as a whole has changed.

More and more, coal seems like yesterday’s news; total production has declined by nearly 50%since 2008. While environmental regulations have had an impact, the biggest reason is competition, first from natural gas and then from renewables, which are now cheaper than coal for electricity generation. While every last voter may not be aware of that fact, years of headlines to that effect — and the steadily increasing number of jobs in the renewables industry — may be penetrating into public consciousness.

Consider Trump’s promise to be “a dictator on day one” so he can do two things: round up immigrants, and “drill, drill, drill.” The latter idea is absurdly unnecessary even for the most fervent fossil fuel advocate, given that the U.S. produced more oil in 2023 than any country in history ever did. Nevertheless, Trump clearly believes it represents something compelling to voters, or at least his voters. But he’s not promising to be a dictator so he can “mine, mine, mine.”

For his part, President Biden touts his administration’s efforts to invest in struggling areas that used to rely on coal, but often in remarks and fact sheets that few voters see. His administration is addressing new concerns over black lung disease (which Trump’s refused to do). Biden spends a great deal of time talking about the government’s green investments, but doesn’t seem to be defensive about the effects the energy transition is having on coal, as so many Democrats have been in the past. Neither he nor others in his party are all that worried about repeating Hillary Clinton’s experience.

That’s despite the fact that the administration’s policies are going a long way toward bringing about the end of coal, or at least its transition to a minor supporting player in the nation’s energy mix. In the latest move toward his goal of a zero-carbon energy system, the EPA announced a new set of regulations affecting coal plants, including the most significant: Plants that plan to stay open past 2039 will have to cut or capture 90 percent of their emissions by 2032. The almost inevitable result will be an acceleration in the closing of coal plants.

When that plan was announced, there were predictable objections from industry and coal-friendly officials — outgoing Sen. Joe Manchin called the new EPA rule “death by a thousand cuts to America’s fossil fuel industry, especially coal” — but on the whole, the reaction was remarkably restrained. Trump did not send a dozen all-caps Truth Social posts denouncing the regulations. Republicans didn’t hold press conferences and suspend all other congressional business to make angry speeches about them. It almost had an air of resignation.

Yes, there will be lawsuits, and there’s a fair chance the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court will strike down the regulations. But as a political issue, it didn’t generate much heat.

That tells us that something important has changed. Coal is no longer a totem of identity and a cause for Republicans to get their own supporters to the polls and win over converts in the middle. National Democrats are overcoming the fear that a pro-coal backlash will turn their climate policies and advocacy into campaign headaches. Just as coal’s importance to the nation’s energy supply is inexorably diminishing, its political power is fading as well. Which makes further climate progress all the more likely.

Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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