My work regularly takes me through several of the coalfield counties of West Virginia: McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming, and Logan. One thing I’ve always noticed in my travels is the preponderance of pro-Trump signs, banners and flags in these counties. Immediately before the 2016 election it seemed every other home I passed was touting the Trump Train, Trump 2016, or Make America Great Again.
Somewhat less than four months into 2020, I’m not seeing Trump love on my routes nearly as often as I used to. Some of the old 2016 stuff is still there; albeit tattered, faded and weatherbeaten, but “Trump 2020” isn’t turning up that often. Could it be that people are finally waking up to the fact that Trump did not save the coal industry as he promised to do?
There are far bigger things than Donald Trump’s ego at play when it comes to influencing coal’s role as a source of energy. The bald fact is the United States and the world continue to move away from coal as the costs of wind, solar and natural gas plunge. Despite Trump’s promises and the rosy predictions of state legislators, coal production in West Virginia — and elsewhere in the U.S. — continues to decline.
One can forgive West Virginians for buying into the brand of snake oil Donald Trump peddled to them during the 2016 presidential campaign. When you’re watching your livelihood… indeed, your entire way of life disappear, and someone comes along and whispers into your ear, “I can bring that back for you,” it’s a powerful and persuasive message.
That message now rings hollow as we approach another election. Even as the coal industry continues to decline its historically exploitative practices continue. Operators are filing bankruptcies that leave workers unpaid and without the health benefits they were promised. The environmental mess abandoned mining operations leave behind isn’t cleaned up.
Things will only get worse for West Virginia coal. A West Virginia University study predicts increasing production declines over the next two decades.
One bright spot in the state’s economy is tourism. With varied terrain and countless natural wonders, West Virginia has become a destination of choice for outdoor types. The ever-expanding ATV trail system attracts riders from across the country. Unfortunately, the jobs created through tourism are generally on the low end of the pay scale; and as we are seeing now, these jobs can be fragile as the current pandemic has virtually shut down tourist traffic.
West Virginia needs leaders who aren’t nursing on the teat of the extractive industries. Money from these companies has lined the pockets of Democrats and Republicans alike for far too long. Their main interest is in preserving their political fortunes, not in helping the poor and working class.
This state has been captive to the fossil fuel industry for decades. To build a better West Virginia, we need to elect leaders who are willing to diversify our economy. Coal and natural gas will have an important role as long as the world needs them, but they should not be the only things driving the state’s economy.