A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Despite Trump’s assertions to the contrary, no comeback in the cards for coal industry


WASHINGTON – During the opening 10 weeks of his presidency, Donald J. Trump has proved himself to be a buffoon, a liar, a flim-flam man of the first order and about as trustworthy as your friendly, neighborhood meth dealer. Now he has added yet another lowlife description to his sordid resume:

Dangerous.

Trump has taken the environmental movement, one of the nation’s great areas of achievement, and attempted to shove it back to Dec. 1, 1970 – the day before then-President Richard Nixon opened the doors to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has done more to help Americans breathe clean air and drink pure water than any other individual or organization over the past 46 years.

Now Trump, for some nefarious reason, is undermining the agency almost as quickly as baloney spews from his curled lips. After releasing a spending plan that cut EPA funding by more than 30 percent – Budget Director Mick Mulvaney called funding for global climate change programs “a waste of money’’ — while simultaneously seeking to eliminate cash for on-going projects to clean the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, Trump, amid great fanfare, is attempting to erase years of scientific evidence.

Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, displaying a belief in science that conservative Republicans have, for some reason abandoned, introduced a number of environmental initiatives during his eight years in office aimed at protecting the nation’s health and welfare and addressing growing concerns about global climate change, which researchers maintain is caused by car exhaust, coal-fired power plants and other activities related to humans.

So, after careful scientific scrutiny, the Obama administration offered up, among other things, the Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32 percent within 25 years, using 2005 as the baseline.

After years of study, the EPA concluded the Obama plan would reduce pollutants that contribute to smog and soot by 25 percent, resulting in an estimated savings in health benefits of $25 billion to $45 billion per year by 2030. Included in the calculations were 140,000 to 150,000 fewer asthma attacks among children – children, mind you — and 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths.

The initiative, as usual in these cases, is facing legal challenge and the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed implementation at least until the objections can be considered.

The plan, of course, addresses climate change, which Trump at one point maintained was a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese government (go ahead, figure that one out). In announcing his package in August 2015, Obama said his initiative represented “the single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change’’ and that America had a “moral obligation’’ to act.

Phrases like “moral obligation,’’ as we’ve quickly learned, mean absolutely nothing to Obama’s successor, the Donald, the 45th president of these United States, and he is industriously operating to kill every progressive environmental measure the nation has undertaken over the past five decades, citing the phony promise of more coal field jobs as his rationale.

“Our administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said, signing an executive order beginning g the process of undoing the Clean Power Plan. “We’re ending the theft of American prosperity and rebuilding our beloved country.”

Cheering him on from the peanut gallery, of course, are the Mutt and Jeff of Kentucky politics, Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, and Republican Gov. “Mad’’ Matt Bevin, a pair of lost causes who have yet to display the first inkling of concern over the health of their constituents or the future of the planet but are more than willing to sell their souls to the coal industry at a cut-rate price.

Ol’ Root ‘n Branch took to the Senate floor to praise the fraud who has assumed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (when he isn’t playing golf at Mar-a-Lago) and provide dollops of the usual McConnell malarkey about Obama’s war on coal and the threat the clean power regulations posed to energy availability — virtually nil, of course, but don’t tell Mitch, he’s on a roll, like Blutarsky citing the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor.

But what’s noteworthy is Ol’ Root ‘n Branch essentially ended his witless spiel by characterizing the Clean Power Plan as “an ideological vanity project,’’ therefore suggesting that Obama’s efforts to address the nation’s health and combat global warming – policy areas that apparently are completely foreign to the Republican leader – were simply intended to stroke the former president’s ego.

McConnell has become, of course, the poster boy for placing party above country, contributing as much, if not more, to the sorry state of the nation’s politics as anyone. The record is clear on that. Since his political existence is one big vanity project at this point, McConnell can be forgiven for seeing Obama’s pro-active efforts to reclaim the nation’s resources while simultaneously combatting the very real threat of global climate change as some sort of personal ego boost.

McConnell lost all remnants of earnestness years ago so, of course, he finds it difficult to identify the trait in others.

Then there’s our boy Mad Matt, who went on a West Virginia radio show to yet again vouch for the wonders of polluted streams and air, asserting that the Obama regulations are “frankly not based on science, it’s not based on anything where it’s been proven in any way shape or form that it actually helps anyone.”

Sigh. Once again the commonwealth’s allegedly intelligent governor opens his mouth and once again utters the sort of nonsense one anticipates from Reverend Jim on Taxi.

Despite the governor’s ridiculous musings, the evidence is clear — greenhouse gases threaten the public’s health and welfare by leading to long-lasting climate changes resulting in a range of negative effects. Carbon dioxide, which billows out of coal-fired power plants, is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, accounting for almost three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions and 82 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s based on science – years of scientific study, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t pulled out of thin air, polluted or otherwise. The world’s best climate scientists have gone over reams of data and millions of measurements collected over the decades and drawn the unmistakable conclusion that human activity is causing climate change.

Even if coal recovers, a dubious proposition at best, it will have little impact on employment. Automation has hit the coal industry just as hard, if not harder, than other production businesses.

Bevin may be fluent in Japanese, but he apparently treated his scientific studies in a manner similar to Jeff Spicoli.

Trump can almost be excused for his ignorance – it’s likely the closest he’s ever come to a coal field is playing golf on reclaimed mine property. Ol’ Root ‘n Branch and Mad Matt have no excuse. They know coal use is plunging, that coal-fired power plants are being shuttered and there are none being built to take their places. The industry is moving to natural gas, accessible and cheaper to use.

Even if coal recovers, a dubious proposition at best, it will have little impact on employment. Automation has hit the coal industry just as hard, if not harder, than other production businesses. Promising miners that they’ll get their jobs back – as Trump did at his executive order signing ceremony – is simply cruel and gives people false hope. McConnell and Bevin know this but they continue to play desperate people for rubes rather than provide the funds and direction that will aid them – and particularly their children – in the long run.

But now they’re playing a game. A dangerous game. They can fib and josh about it all they want, but global climate change is real and poses a threat to the planet’s well-being without some action being taken. And history should remember their names.

The great Jean Ritchie wrote in The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore:

I used to think my daddy was a black man

With script enough to buy the company store

Now he goes downtown with empty pockets

And his face is white as a February snow

The coal economy is disappearing in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere and people like Trump, McConnell and Bevin are laughing behind the backs of people with empty pockets and faces as white as a February snow, convincing them that good times and the grand coal revival is right around the corner.

But like the L&N, those folks will soon be seeing the train don’t stop there anymore.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.


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