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Bill Straub: The Napoleon of coal (good, beautiful, clean) coal is just playing along and enjoying the joke

There are many good things that can be said about coal. For decades, even centuries, in the United States it helped keep homes warm in the winter. Coal brought electricity to even the most remote regions of the country and, it should be noted, helped spur the economic revolution that truly made America great.

But beautiful?

Coal is a substance that ravages regions where it’s uncovered, dirties the air when burned, rendering it nearly impossible for individuals with lung maladies to breathe, and can turn streams black from run-off.

Burning coal from power plants is the leading cause of air pollution in the U.S. and is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, neurological problems, acid rain, global climate change and other severe environmental hazards.

Beautiful? Only if you swoon with passion over the sighting of a duck-billed platypus.

But that is what the president of the United States would have you believe. In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress, President (good lord almighty) Trump waxed ecstatic over a soft, dirty black rock as if it were Stormy Daniels.

“We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” the 71-year-old enfant terrible told the gathered lawmakers in his usual braggadocios manner. “We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.”

You know, in a very funny sort of way, you have to admire this guy. He stands up before god and country and, with a conceited smirk crossing his face, utters some of the most ludicrous bilge that has ever dripped from a president’s mouth.

And his supporters, many of whom have experience in the mining industry, eat it up. He knows it’s baloney, they know it’s baloney, but they seem to be having a good time going along with the gag.

And there are his enablers. Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell, of Kentucky, leading up to the SOTU, bragged that “Congress and the White House have teamed up to roll back regulations that: threatened hundreds of thousands of coal jobs.”

Okay, hold it right there.

Let’s consider that whopper before we return to our regularly scheduled programming. The coal industry has essentially crashed, going from a high of about 800,000 workers in the 1920s to around 76,000 today. If there exists only 76,000 coal mining jobs, one might want to ask ol’ Root ‘n Branch how rolling back regulations is going to save hundreds of thousands of positions.

If one was being intemperate, one might call that a lie.

McConnell’s Kentucky, meanwhile, was the nation’s leading coal producer until 1988, three years after he entered the Senate. It now ranks fifth behind Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Illinois, and has seen industry employment in the commonwealth drop from 48,395 in 1980 to 6,438 as of last Sept. 30.

Ol’ Root ‘n Branch further expressed joy in the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a Danville native, to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, crediting him with having “notched achievement after achievement for the American people, laying the groundwork for a stronger and safer nation.”

Those achievements, of course, consist of moves to scuttle nearly every key rule and regulation dealing with global climate change, including the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that placed strict emissions limits on coal-fired power plants. Ask a kid with asthma whether that makes for a “stronger and safer nation.”

Trump, for some strange reason, has declared himself the Napoleon of coal, engaging in a war with those who favor cleaner forms of energy that are not only better for the nation’s overall health but take at least a swipe at the continued encroachment of global climate change, which our president seems to think is a figment of climatologists’ collective imagination.

But he’s firing blanks. There’s simply nothing clean about coal despite years and years of research. Meanwhile the Trump administration has actually done very little to halt coal’s decline and there’s no reason to anticipate a revival now or any other time.

The most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Center, released in October, showed that U.S. coal production actually dipped slightly during the first six months of 2017 when compared to the second half of 2016, a time before he assumed office. The decline was attributed to weaker demand for steam coal, which accounts for more than 90 percent of U.S. coal production.

That drop has little to do with the environmental regulations that Trump and McConnell so detest. According to the EIC it is driven by the fact that coal formerly used for electricity generation has lost a share to other fuels, notably natural gas that is cheaper and cleaner.

In fact, natural gas now maintains the largest share of the nation’s power generation mix, accounting for 31 percent of electricity production while coal finished second at 30 percent. And renewables like wind, solar and hydro are quickly gaining ground at 20 percent.

Where American coal is showing some life and is proving a good export is in the production of metallurgical coal, which can generate more heat than natural gas or other forms. U.S. metallurgical coal exports to Asia increased during the first half of 2017 as China, Japan, and India looked to offset disruptions to their supply of Australian coal caused by Cyclone Debbie in April 2017, so the hike may be only temporary. In addition, China’s demand for metallurgical coal increased as its steel production reached record levels.

Despite Trump’s claims, there certainly never has been a war on energy. There hasn’t even been a war on coal – just a realization from utility companies and others that, when compared to other forms, coal can be more expensive and terrible for the environment to boot. Those are called market forces and there’s very little Trump ultimately can do about them despite his best efforts – like placing a 30 percent tariff on solar panels from China.

So why is Trump posing as coal’s savior when he is, at best, a pretender to the thrown? Money for one thing. Coal barons grasping at straws, confidant that their dirty source of energy will somehow make a miraculous comeback, remain eager to deposit hundreds of thousands (there’s that figure again) of dollars in the president’s campaign coffers.

And it plays well in the Appalachian coal belt. Trump carried Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio based on, at least partially, his vow to resurrect King Coal. That proved decisive and he’ll need those states again if he has any chance of winning re-election in 2020.

Coal has had a significant influence on the course of American history. It hasn’t always been pretty – murder, ecological rape, condemning workers to poverty and other nasty business. But it helped build the nation. But those days are gone and it’s passed time to move on.

Washington columnist 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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