When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump visited the Pittsburgh area during his campaign, he consistently promised that the coal industry would be making a rebound. “Coal — clean coal, clean coal — we’re bringing it back,” Trump said at an April 2016 rally at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh. In July 2016, in Scranton in northeast Pennsylvania, Trump also promised to take care of coal miners and “put them back to work.”
Now, one year since Trump took office, the coal industry in the region has marginally rebounded from a dismal 2016. A few new mines have opened up, the volume of coal mined in the region has grown, and there has been a small increase in coal employment. Trump has appeared to have kept his promise to Southwest Pennsylvanians.
But on Jan. 3, Dana Mining Company announced it would close its 4 West Mine in Greene County. By this summer, 370 people will lose their coal-industry jobs. This will easily wipe out the modest gains in coal jobs Southwestern Pennsylvania experienced in 2017, as well as erase the production gains coal saw here in 2017.
Economic experts warn that coal will continue its long-term, steady decline. Pennsylvania coal-industry advocates are optimistic about coal’s future, and say coal production will remain steady and an important part of the area’s energy portfolio. But even with these diverging views of the overall future of coal, everyone seems to be in agreement about one thing: The coal jobs are not coming back.
“I suggested that [Trump] temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, the country’s largest coal-mine owner, in a March 2017 article in The Guardian newspaper. “He can’t bring them back.”
Pittsburgh City Paper analyzed U.S. Department of Labor data on jobs at coal-producing sites in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny, Butler, Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland and Armstrong counties. (Beaver County had no coal mines, according to the data.) In 2017, the average number of workers at coal-producing sites, like underground and surface mines, in this region was 2,767, an increase of 26 workers compared to 2016, or a growth rate of less than 1 percent.
Nationally, coal jobs ticked up by 771 to 54,819 jobs, an increase of 1.4 percent, according to news organization Reuters.
With the projected 370 jobs lost at the 4 West Mine, this means the region will have to add more than 344 coal jobs to have positive job growth in 2018. Seth Feaster, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a Cleveland-based group that advocates for a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy, says this will be an extremely difficult feat.
Feaster says there was a positive jolt to the coal industry with the election of Trump, but adds that enthusiasm for coal has since waned, because the demand hasn’t really recovered. He notes that the fourth quarter of 2017 saw a drop-off in coal-industry hiring compared to early in the year.
Feaster also says job numbers over the last several years indicate a bleak future for coal employment. “If you take a slightly longer view of the coal industry, just to 2015, there was still a 13,000-job loss compared to 2017,” says Feaster. “Go back to 2012, you are talking about a loss of 35,000 jobs. Coal is facing a long-term problem.”
Greene County had 2,016 coal jobs in 2017, the most of any county in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It also produced the most coal. In 2016, the county voted for Trump with 68 percent of its vote, a 10 percent increase from votes for the previous Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. And with Greene County only adding 12 coal jobs in 2017, and the announced closure of the 4 West Mine, local pro-coal leaders are blaming Trump.