Robert Murray, owner of the country's largest private coal company, wasted no time pointing the finger when he announced plans earlier this week to lay off as many as 4,400 workers, or 80 percent of his workforce.
His St. Clairsville, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corporation needed to downsize "due to the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Barack Obama, and his supporters, and the increased utilization of natural gas to generate electricity," he said.
“Frankly, I am frightened for you, my employees, and the survival of your jobs and family livelihoods,” Murray said in a speech to workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Their only hope for their jobs, the 75-year-old said, lies in electing "friends of coal" like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
That's not true, of course -- not least because the pink slips are set to go out in September, and the election won't be held until November. But even a President Trump -- whose seemingly half-baked plan to save coal would likely only boost its chief rival, natural gas -- can't stop the calamitous decline of the industry. For that, coal only really has itself to blame.
It's predictably easy for Big Coal and its cohorts to obfuscate facts. The very idea that wealthy coal executives represent miners' best interests ignores a long history of violence and abuse against workers who risked their lives to extract a fuel that helped usher in unprecedented economic growth, often for meager wages.
The coal industry has been in decline for decades. In 2007, coal still produced 50 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Nine years later, that number stands at 33 percent.
The rate of climate change, caused by greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, makes it necessary to hasten coal's demise. It's by far the dirtiest fuel. Without drastic emissions reductions, the world is on course to warm beyond the 2 degrees Celsius scientists say will wipe out plants and animals, submerge coastal cities and cause extreme, unpredictable weather. By the end of the century, 13 million people in the U.S. could be displaced by climate change, a March study found. That's not hypothetical; the country has already begun resettling its first "climate refugees."
In December, more than 180 countries -- including the U.S. and China -- agreed to a historic climate treaty in Paris. Though not legally binding, the pledges to cut emissions sent a strong signal to investors and businesspeople the world over: The carbon era is coming to an end.
Trump has promised to pull out of that treaty, though that seems highly unlikely to happen. And even if he did, it wouldn't change much for coal miners. Even before the Obama administration unveiled the Clean Power Plan (currently stalled) last August, the business case for coal had largely eroded. Largely responsible were the plummeting price of energy from natural gas (a cleaner-burning, but still problematic, alternative) and renewables like solar and wind.
“You also had utilities seeing the writing on the wall and making decisions in the best interest of their shareholders," Jackson Morris, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s eastern energy program, told Climate Central in March. “The Clean Power Plan is really locking in a transformation that’s already in motion.”
Even if Trump were to win and follow through on his promise to open federal lands to coal mining, it wouldn't bring back the industry's bankrupt behemoths. As The Huffington Post wrote in May:
The coal industry is killing itself, with debt it loaded up to fund deals that would only be profitable if Chinese demand for steel-making coal continued to surge. That was just before demand tanked. At the same time, coal has been battered by competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy, HuffPost’s Kate Sheppard reported.
In other words, the coal industry is imploding. Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal have filed for bankruptcy in recent months — hurt by cleaner competition but also because of the industry’s own mistakes. And the decline in coal jobs has been a decades-long trend. In 1985, the industry employed 177,000 people. By the end of 2008, that number had been whittled to just 86,000. Now it’s just 56,000.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has laid out a $30 billion, 4,300-word plan to retrain coal workers for new jobs. But its specific policy proposals, including everything from education and infrastructure to tax credits and school funding, hardly make for good TV. Especially compared to a bombastic reality TV star who dons a hard hat, scapegoats a familiar villain and shouts the sweet nothings that people want to hear into the microphone.
Trump has demonstrated his disregard for the truth throughout his campaign. But Murray, as recently as 2014, had his facts straight.
“We have the absolute destruction of the United States coal industry. It isn’t coming back. It’s permanent. Virtually all of it is permanent," Murray said at an industry conference in 2014, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. "And if you think it’s coming back, you don’t understand the business. Or you’re smoking dope.”
What a difference two years make.