As he stands atop a crosstie, effectively blocking a rail shipment of coal, Chris Rowe and many other coal miners in Harlan, Ky. fret about the future.
“Every time I look at my seven-year-old it gets worse,” he says. “Because me as an adult, I can survive. But when it comes to my little boy, he needs more than what I do.”
The laid-off miners have been blocking coal trains for five days now while they demand back pay from the Blackjewel Coal Company, which has declared bankruptcy and has put its assets up for auction.
At Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Detroit, the party’s presidential contenders added to the miners’ despair.
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When asked if there would “be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a [Joe] Biden Administration,” the former Vice President and current Democratic frontrunner replied: “No … we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either. Any fossil fuel.”
Biden added that his proposed phase-out of fossil fuels would take place over thirty years. The Green New Deal, supported by many Democrats, would phase them out over ten years.
It may be a perilous strategy.
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In March of 2016, Hillary Clinton said in a CNN town hall: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She then added an important qualifier. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”
It wasn’t enough. In her post-defeat book “What Happened,” Clinton described the town hall remarks as “her greatest campaign misstep.”
No wonder then, that after Biden’s comment Wednesday night, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted: “Bye bye coal, Democrats & @JoeBiden just said they are done with you. How do you feel about that Pennsylvania?”
In its own statement, the Trump campaign added: “Jobs gone, auto and manufacturing industries crushed, lives ruined. Reckless and dangerous.”
But reality suggests that for all of the president’s promises to coal miners, little has changed in the thirty-one months of his administration. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have caused the damage. It’s the free market — specifically fracking — that has been coal’s undoing.
“Over the last few years, the United States has become the largest producer of natural gas and last year the largest producer of oil in the world,” U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Administrator Dr. Linda Capuanotold listeners at this year’s Energy Outlook Conference.
As a result, coal production and consumption has declined precipitously since 2010. Even last year’s export of 116 million tons of US-mined coal barely dents the decline.
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Most Democrats believe the shift to wind and solar will produce new economic benefits. At Wednesday’s debate, Biden cited 10 million new jobs. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper believes such promises are fantasy.
“That is a disaster,” he said. “You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”