Kenneth Bone, the undecided voter whose red sweater and earnest question about energy policy at the second presidential debate propelled him to sudden Internet fame, holds a common assumption about Hillary Clinton: that she’d be bad for coal country. “The big issue is that Donald Trump represents my industry in a more positive light than Hillary Clinton,” said Bone, who works at a coal-fired power plant in Illinois, in a later interview. “I would have more career opportunities and I’d be better [able] to take care of myself and my family under Donald Trump.” Trump made a similar argument during the debate, claiming that Clinton “wants to put all the miners out of business.” The notion that a Clinton administration would mean further economic ruin for Appalachia appears frequently in reporting on voters there. But is it actually true?
The simplest way to understand the difference in the candidates’ approach on coal is that Trump wants to reboot the industry (by repealing environmental regulations), while Clinton wants to rebuild the communities that have historically depended on that industry, by diversifying their economies—to give people like Ken Bone career opportunities beyond the coal industry. Unfortunately, there’s been little room for a real comparison of their proposals amidst an outcry over an ill-phrased comment that Clinton made during an interview in March. Clinton was explaining her $30 billion coal-country revitalization plan; the plan was necessary, she continued, because “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Clinton went on to say that she didn’t want to abandon “the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” But it was the first statement that made it into headlines, taken as evidence that she intended to destroy the industry.
The truth is that there isn’t much left to destroy. The coalfield workforce has been shrinking since the Reagan administration, when mechanization began to displace workers. Coal mining employs fewer than 75,000 people now, down from nearly 180,000 in 1985. Job losses have been particularly steep in Appalachia because the richest coal seams there have been tapped out. As a result, production shifted to Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. More recently, the fracking boom has made natural gas a cheaper, more efficient alternative. Solar and wind power are increasingly competitive, too, and banks are backing away from financing coal projects.
Trump’s promise to coal country is that he can reverse these trends. But his plan is based almost entirely on rolling back regulations, and new research from Case Western Reserve University makes it clear that doing so won’t make up for three decades of decline. The environmental rules that the coal industry has to contend with have been in place since President George H.W. Bush signed them into law in 1990; in spite of them, coal consumption continued to grow until 2008, when it dropped off steeply. Contra Trump, the drop didn’t have anything to do with the Obama administration’s proposed restrictions on carbon emissions, which haven’t yet gone into effect; nor with stricter limits on mercury pollution, which were only approved by the Supreme Court in June. The data examined by the Case researchers indicates that the driving force behind the decline in coal-generated electricity was not EPA rules but instead the dramatic increase in natural-gas production.