The signing ceremony for Donald Trump’s executive order nullifying the climate initiatives of the Obama Administration was staged so that about two dozen miners looked on adoringly as the president claimed to be ending the so-called war on coal. Trump then repeated his promise that the regulatory rollbacks would “put our miners back to work.”
Just about every analysis concludes this is a hollow promise. Trump’s action will have little impact on the long-term decline of coal industry jobs. Even industry figures such as Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, are warning: “He can’t bring them back.”
And even if there is a modest improvement, it won’t include the kind of well-paying jobs that used to characterize coal mining. According to the latest annual report on coal from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, unionized underground mining jobs are now outnumbered three to one by non-union surface mining jobs. The executive order’s lifting of the freeze on federal coal leasing, which is concentrated in Western surface mines, will increase the gap.
This did not happen by accident. The coal industry has been seeking for years to weaken the United Mine Workers by shifting work to non-union operations or by spinning off UMW-represented mines as weak stand-alone companies. The industry’s biggest producer, Peabody Energy, did this in 2007 when it shed Patriot Coal, which subsequently declared bankruptcy and was given court approval to slash wages, pensions and healthcare benefits of its workers and retirees. Today Peabody has only one operation left with a UMW presence. Anti-union animus was pronounced at various companies — especially Pittston and Massey Energy — that merged into what is now called Alpha Natural Resources.
One consequence of de-unionization is that coal managers can more easily cut corners on safety. This was seen at Peabody more than three decades ago. In 1982 the company pleaded no contest and paid a penalty of $130,000 to settle federal charges that it falsified dust-sampling reports submitted to the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) as part of the monitoring of conditions that can cause black lung disease. In 1991, after a year-long investigation by MSHA, Peabody once again stood accused of tampering with coal-dust test results. It pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was fined $500,000, the largest penalty that had ever been assessed for a non-fatal violation of federal mine safety regulations.
In 2006 a dozen miners died in a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine (then run by International Coal Group, which later merged into Arch Coal) had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial.
Allegations of poor safety practices at a non-union mine surrounded an even worse disaster — the death of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch operation in West Virginia in 2010. The mine had been cited more than 50 times by MSHA in the month before the explosion and had racked up 1,342 violations over the previous five years. In 2011 Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the accident, had to pay $209 million to settle federal criminal charges.
If Trump really wanted to do something to help coal miners, he would beef up MSHA’s enforcement capacity and embrace labor law reforms that would help the UMW regain lost ground. Instead, he is proposing a 21 percent cut in the budget of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, and staying silent on the anti-worker practices of the coal companies he is so eager to assist.