A funny thing happened in Pennsylvania during the presidential election of 2016. Besides blowing a huge hole in the theory that its voters were racists, Donald Trump’s historic upset in the Keystone State after two elections of firm support for Barack Obama points to something more. Voters there care about jobs — like those in the coal industry – and on election day they thought candidate Trump would best help them keep the ones they have and bring back the ones they lost. On Thursday, February 16th, President Trump took another decisive action to prove these voters right by repealing the Stream Protection Rule.
Pennsylvania is the fourth largest producer of coal among its peers. The industry employs thousands of people. Those people and the voters who care about them represent a subset of the American workforce President Trump promised to fight for on the campaign trail. He pledged to bring back coal jobs, and his action repealing the Stream Protection Rule is a step in that direction.
Listen to some of the more critical voices out there, and you would think Trump committed some atrocity against the environment. Once again, some perspective is in order.
The designers of this legislation were more interested in killing coal than protecting the environment; the regulation is riddled with problems. In his white paper for the Heritage Foundation, Nicolas Loris, a Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy, lays out some of the fundamental defects:
It only vaguely defines permit requirements, monitoring, and stream classifications, which it applies to both surface and underground mining. It removes flexibility in how companies reclaim mine sites, for instance by requiring reforestation even though wildlife organizations are working with the coal industry to provide grassland habitats for a wide range of species. Furthermore, it ignores regional differences and the efficient state regulatory work that manages those differences. State and local agencies’ specific knowledge often enables them to tailor regulations to promote economic activity while protecting the habitat and environment.
The American electorate is tired of these kinds of mandatory decrees from Washington. Last November, voters rejected the federal government imposing control on states without their input. Mining and the water pollution it can create is a regional issue. If the residents of a state wish to enact stringent rules and regulations designed to kill the very industry they work in, they absolutely may do so. Nothing is stopping them. It succeeded in nearly eliminating the gun industry in Connecticut.
The other big problem with this rule is that it went into effect on January 19th, 2017, a single day before President Trump took the oath of office. Repealing the Rule hardly unwound years of protection, nor did it open the door for coal companies to begin dumping wastewater into their local stream. President Trump did not legalize anything that was not already permitted a mere month earlier.
An aerial view of this issue reveals the anti-coal coalition is winning. It would appear that in the end coal’s antagonists are destined to be victorious. The coal industry now employs fewer people than the solar field. The cost of electricity for coal, long one of its few redeeming qualities, is fast approaching or exceeding the price of renewables. Public opinion towards this fossil fuel hovers around the level usually reserved for tobacco companies, Congress, and people who text while driving.
At the end of the day, there are still over thirty thousand people from the coal industry who have lost their jobs since 2009. Their peers still on the job are concerned about their futures. These people are not easily retrained into other employment as coal jobs pay well — with an average salary estimated around eighty thousand dollars. Trump recognizes this.
The President made all of these people a promise, and just like so many of his other campaign pledges, he is — so far — making good on his word. Could this perhaps be the reason for his recent uptick in Presidential performance and favorability polls?