All through high school, Dakota Hall wanted to be a coal miner. “Everybody had their dreams about being a basketball player, football player,” he said. “I always just wanted to be a coal miner.”
For a brief window, he was. But then, in November 2015, Hall was let go from his job in surface mining. For the next year, as the presidential campaign raged on, Hall, 20, lived with his wife and grandparents, working odd jobs to support his family, including his two young children.
“We’ve never really had much in West Virginia,” Hall said. “The only thing that we always had to look forward to, if you wanted to take care of a family, was the coal mines.”
Until it wasn’t.
From 2011 to 2015, the coal mining industry lost more than 26,000 jobs, with 87 percent of those losses coming in the Appalachian region, according to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. In the last two years alone, several major coal companies filed for bankruptcy protection, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources.
Which is one of the reasons why Hall and many other miners saw the election of Donald Trump as a moment of hope.
“We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Trump said in May 2016. “The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania … Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”
In a region where coal mining isn’t just a job but an integral part of local history, culture and identity, that message resonated with voters. On Election Day, Hillary Clinton failed to win a single county in West Virginia. In Mingo County, where Hall lives, Trump won by 83 percent. In Kentucky, Trump won all but two counties. Clinton also lost mining communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but by narrower margins.
“The lives of so many families have been destroyed, and all they want to do is work in dignity,” said Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy Corp. and a staunch Trump supporter. “Donald Trump came here and saw that. He saw these people, and the destruction.”
Headwinds for Coal
For Trump, moving beyond the campaign rhetoric and delivering on the promise to bring back mining will be a challenge. While mining has always been a volatile industry, with cycles of boom and bust, many economists and energy experts say the current decline, at least in Appalachia, is here to stay.
Increased automation is one of several factors that they point to. Even as the production of coal was peaking in 2008, machines were replacing whole teams of miners, reducing the number of jobs in the industry.
“The machines that pull coal out of the ground allow us to pull way more than a bunch of guys with pick axes and shovels could — using one, two or three guys to operate them,” said Chris Bollinger, director of the Center of Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky. “That has had a tremendous impact on employment in the industry.”
In more recent years, the industry has been forced to compete with the boom in natural gas production, which thanks to advances in fracking technology, has made natural gas an attractive alternative to coal.
Before the fracking boom, “coal undoubtedly had a cost advantage,” said John Deskins, the director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “Here we have a natural gas boom lowering the cost of gas, and a regulatory climate raising the cost of coal, you can imagine that tipping the scales away from coal and in favor of natural gas.”
In 2008, roughly half the electricity generated in the United States came from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2016, coal had dropped to a third, with natural gas overtaking it by a growing margin.
The natural gas boom comes at a time of diminishing supply of cheap coal across much of Appalachia. Coal fields in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, for example, have been mined for much longer than reserves elsewhere in the country. That has left the region with coal deposits that are thinner and deeper in the ground, making them costlier to reach and extract.
“We’re down to the expensive, hard-to-reach stuff,” Bollinger said, speaking of eastern Kentucky’s coal fields. “When you’ve got an alternative that’s easy, you’re going to go for that.”
In states like Illinois, Montana and Wyoming, that’s been a boon for business. In Appalachia, it’s meant less mining work.
Depression in Coal Country
The mining downturn has had a deep impact on local economies in Appalachia.
“These employment losses are very heavily concentrated,” Deskins said, noting that southern West Virginia now contains five counties — the heart of the coal fields — that are in a deep depression. In December, when the national jobless rate stood at 4.7 percent, unemployment in those five counties ranged from 5.6 percent to 10.1 percent.
Deskins noted that long-term reliance on coal jobs in these areas means that fewer people pursued higher education, making transitioning to a post-coal economy more difficult.
Stephanie Tyree, the executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, described a vicious cycle triggered by the loss of mining jobs. Coal miners lose their jobs or move to another county or state in search of work. The subsequent loss in tax revenue, in turn, forces counties with shrinking budgets to cut jobs in government, some of the most stable employment available in these areas.
“It’s just this ripple effect that keeps rippling out to impact all these other layers, so you have less support for county projects, infrastructure development, for anything that supports the county budget,” Tyree said. “It starts to go at such a rapid pace that it becomes very difficult to step in to mitigate it.”
“Level the Playing Field”
Despite skepticism expressed by economists and other experts about a coal revival, the Trump administration has industry representatives feeling hopeful.
“Since November 8, everybody’s attitude has been much more positive in West Virginia and around the industry, simply because someone’s recognized the significance of the coal miner,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Like many in the industry, Raney blames mining’s struggles primarily on regulations introduced during the Obama administration aimed at reducing the environmental impact of coal and its contribution to climate change. “They’ve been generating plans to use other fuels through their regulatory behavior,” Raney said, adding that a slow permitting process also hurt the industry under Obama.
Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, said he viewed what happened during the Obama administration as “the government picking winners and losers.” He wants Trump to end subsidies for wind and solar power, and to curtail the size and reach of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Get the government out of energy, and let us compete on a level playing field, and I can compete with natural gas head on,” he said. “Just give me the ball and I’ll run with it with my coal.”
During his campaign, Trump proposed an “America first energy plan” that would tap into “hundreds of years in clean coal reserves,” and roll back “job-destroying” regulations and executive actions by the Obama administration. He vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, dismantle the Clean Power Plan — a proposed rule that would reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 2030 — and ease restrictions for energy production on federal lands.
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, indicated during his confirmation hearing that the agency would operate in a more restrained manner under his leadership, saying he would avoid “using a heavy hand to coerce the states into effectuating EPA policies.”
Raney and Murray would like to see regulations like the Clean Power Plan, and the Stream Protection Rule — which is designed to protect streams from mining-related pollution, but which the industry says threatens jobs — dismantled. Congress passed a repeal of the stream rule in February. The bill is awaiting Trump’s signature.
“We’re hopeful, and anticipating a rebound as we move through the next four years,” Raney said.
Economists like Deskins, however, remain doubtful.
“I absolutely have no idea how they could take steps to bring back coal to the levels that we saw in 2008,” Deskins said, noting that the Trump administration would likely have the biggest impact on the regulatory climate, but would be unlikely to impact the natural gas boom or fading international demand for coal.
Even with regard to regulations, Deskins noted that a lot of the investments needed to comply with Obama era regulations had already been made, and expenses had already been incurred. “In a very, very simple sense from the perspective of coal demand, the damage has already been done.”
Bollinger, who’s based in Kentucky, doesn’t see the fate of coal miners in Appalachia improving under Trump, even with the easing of federal regulations. In all likelihood, he said, the benefits will go to places where the cheapest coal is still easily available — in states like Wyoming and Montana.
Looking to the Future
For Hall, who was taking an underground mining certification course with the promise of a coal job, personal tragedy and circumstance intervened. After his family received an eviction notice and his grandmother passed away, he decided to move to Rossville, Georgia to take care of his grandfather. He plans to work at a company doing housing installation.
It isn’t the first time his path has shifted. “I was actually getting ready to go to college,” he said. “Well, trying to. And they brought the coal back when I was in the process of doing that, so I just pretty much threw it all down and walked away from it for the coal mines.”
Economic development organizations in states like West Virginia and Kentucky are already focused on helping people adapt to a post-coal economy. Ivy Brashear, who works at the Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, thinks coal mining’s decline in the Appalachian region is not reversible.
“Holding on to this idea that we can bring coal back, or we should, is detrimental to this movement toward the future,” Brashear said, “because it gives the idea that bringing coal back is possible, and it’s just not possible.”
“I don’t necessarily think that coal miners are averse to other industries or working somewhere else,” Brashear added. “They just want to work.”
This story is part of an investigation from Frontline called “How The Deck Is Stacked: The realities of getting ahead in the new American economy.” You can read the original story here.
Other stories in this series: