The Great Coal Country Con Job Is Almost Complete

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Remember when reality show star-turned-president elect Donald Trump swore he would bring lots of coal jobs back to Appalachia? Remember when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pretended to give a flying fig about coal miners? That was just last week.

Now it looks like the Trump administration will do nothing at all for ‘coal country,’ and McConnell is singing a very different tune. Instead of creating jobs, the Trump regime will get rid of regulations that protect miners, fight climate change, and make America’s air cleaner — all under the rubric of ending the “war on coal.”

“We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”

The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.

“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”

Delivered on Friday, McConnell’s remarks are a tacit admission that environmental and safety regulations (the so-called “war on coal”) have a far smaller impact on coal industry jobs than the free market pressures created by the natural gas fracking boom and the widespread retirement of coal-fired electric plants. Strip mining and mountaintop removal techniques are also far cheaper than underground mining because they use far fewer people to extract the coal, so even if you could belch life into the coal mining trade, it would only be in the geographic areas that can be exploited in the way that creates the fewest jobs.

Exploitation is in fact the operating term for the coal mining sector. When we speak of the ‘economic anxiety’ of white rural voters in coal country, let us acknowledge that the coal barons have succeeded in getting mighty rich and powerful at the expense of these white rural voters. They have extracted as much wealth from these regions as possible while spending as little as possible and taking zero responsibility for the mess left behind.

Mountains that once teemed with the greatest biodiversity in North America are now moonscapes; when the coal plays out, the jobs are gone and the pollution stays. These counties have the highest rates of cancer in America — as well as the highest rates of poverty and unemployment. Black lung disease has made a startling comeback in the era of lax federal safety regulation. Yet these are the reddest places in America.

As always with conservative politics, the suckers want to be played. They rave for Don Blankenship on a tea party stage with Ted Nugent. They elect coal billionaire and tax reprobate Jim Justice for Governor of West Virginia. They exult in their Duck Dynasty culture and never hold any ‘good old boy’ to account, then wonder why they are screwed.

And they are indeed screwed. As the Lexington Herald-Reader reports,

McConnell’s solution isn’t a stimulus plan, although he expects to continue working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that funnels federal money to economically struggling coal communities.

“A government spending program is not likely to solve the fundamental problem of growth,” McConnell said. “…I support the effort to help these coal counties wherever we can but that isn’t going to replace whatever was there when we had a vibrant coal industry.”

Remember when Hillary Clinton pushed McConnell to pass the Miners Protection Act, an imperfect but important step to shoring up miners’ pensions? Of course you don’t. Nor did you hear much about her detailed plans to diversify these local economies. If you are familiar with anything at all about Clinton’s policy proposals for coal country, it is probably that she said something impolitic once about how the coal industry will inevitably have to be shuttered over time.

Which, again, was going to happen regardless of who got elected president, and not really because of regulations but because coal is dirty and expensive. The inevitability of coal’s decline is painfully clear from recent major bankruptcies in the sector.

No remediation will come to these people and their blighted lands. No help is coming. If anything, the Republican majority in Congress will now attack the very fabric of the social safety net that prevents coal country from collapsing altogether like the rotten timbers of an overworked mine can bring down a whole mountain. With the miners’ union virtually annihilated, its pension system will now be bankrupted, too.

We’re hearing a lot these days about these places voting heavily for Donald Trump out of ‘economic anxiety,’ but hardly any political analysis of who makes these places so anxious. Like most coal country politicians, Mitch McConnell does a great job creating this anxiety, and ‘outsider’ Donald Trump actually doesn’t appear to have any plans to alleviate their worries, either. Yet coal mining regions will probably remain loyal these no matter how many promises these men break. By diverting the rage of these anxious voters towards culture wars and ‘elites’ and federal regulations, the scam will continue until the coal — and the wealth — are all gone.

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