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Coal Cronyism

Appalachia’s coal-mining towns are on a glide path to becoming the next Detroit, victims of a declining industry and disconnected politics. After the Democrats spent generations taking coal miners for granted, President Trump’s outreach is laudable. Unfortunately, the president’s promises end with cutting regulations—necessary but insufficient and cynical. This aids Wall Street, not West Virginia.

To be sure, regulations do harm the coal industry. This is a big reason why President Obama, who oversold the green lobby, embarked on a regulation crusade. President Obama believed that the power of regulations would be enough to kill the industry.

President Trump’s Wednesday evisceration of President Obama’s Social Cost of Carbon regulations deserves praise. Those regulations were harmful and arbitrary. Likewise, Trump should be praised for doing away with Obama’s ridiculous Surface Mining Stream Protection Rule.

But Trump is overselling hard-working West Virginians on his ability to save the coal industry. The truth is that Appalachian coal is in terminal decline. Deregulation and halting big-government green misadventures, both good things, will certainly lessen the magnitude of the industry’s decline, but not the directionality. Automation, resource depletion, competition from Western coal mining, and the natural-gas fracking revolution—one of the industries Trump champions—will kill Appalachian coal regardless of regulations.

For example, the more automated mountaintop coal mining in Wyoming is many times more productive than underground mining. Increased market demand will employ robots in Wyoming before it does humans in West Virginia.

It is hardly news that deregulation will not save Appalachia’s coal mining industry. Studyafterstudy, articleafterarticle, haspointedthisout. This cannot be news to the administration.

And yet …?

Trump cast his Wednesday Executive Order (EO) as a victory lap for the coal industry, not a starting pistol for helping Appalachia. Alongside the EO, Trump should have proposed free-market policies to foster opportunities for Appalachia’s coal miners facing their industry’s certain downward trajectory.

A few ideas:

  • Work with state and local governments to offer block grants or tax credits for public-private partnership initiatives and training apprentices;
  • Let unemployed workers borrow against future benefits to move;
  • Increase funding for vocational schools.

These and other ideas would help foster a more hopeful and dignified future than the black hole of government dependency that too many of the coal industry’s workers will otherwise face.

But the president declared victory with deregulation alone, and that helps only Wall Street. Trump’s deregulation campaign pledges to “bring back coal, 100 percent” helped coal and financial markets gain handsomely. Indeed, after Trump signed his EO yesterday, coal stocks ripped.

Appalachia’s underground miners, meanwhile, still face bleak job growth.

Regulation alone did not cause coal usage to fall from 917 to 736.9 million short tons, and coal exports to drop by 50 percent, from 97 to 57.9 million short tons, between 2014 and 2016. Ohio, one of the country’s largest coal-fired energy producers, permanently decommissioned 15 percent of its coal plants by 2015 to take advantage of cheap, abundant natural gas. And critically, Trump seeks to increase the production of cheap natural gas. That is a good thing, in general, but you need not be an economics professor to see the conundrum that poses for coal.

Trump probably did not explicitly intend to sell coal workers down the river on Wall Street’s behalf, but how many coal miners work for the Trump administration compared to Goldman Sachs executives? How much money did Trump raise from West Virginia? From Wall Street? It is no mystery who constructed the policy, nor should it surprise anyone whom it benefits.

Dan DiMicco’s steel protection racket is in-your-face and paint-by-numbers simple. In contrast, the cronyism behind Trump’s coal policy is subtle. That subtlety masks cynicism: Wall Street writes a policy, then Trump sells it to Appalachia as an elixir. Appalachian coal miners have no choice but to applaud it given Obama’s past hostility to the industry. Commodity traders go shopping for a new Ferrari; Appalachian coal miners continue preparing their welfare paperwork.

A corollary to all this is political malpractice. The GOP should reach out to Appalachia’s coal miners, but failing to champion policies that will actually foster opportunity for Appalachia’s proud, hard-working communities means that the GOP will own the eventual havoc, saving the Democrats from their decades of failure.

While Trump would have you believe Wednesday’s EO was a big down payment on his promise to fully revive this troubled industry, the GOP, with its payday to Wall Street, played deus ex machina to save the Democrats from their failed policies. The losers are the GOP and, disgracefully, Appalachian coal miners.

Kristofer L. Harrison is senior managing director for a macro-economic consultancy. Previously, Mr. Harrison served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush Administration.

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