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Fact-checking the Trump administration’s claims on ‘saving’ coal country

The Trump administration has made a lot of claims about gains in the coal industry, but virtually none of them are true. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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“I’m the one that saved coal. I’m the one that created jobs.”
— President Trump, in an interview with the New York Times, Dec. 28, 2017

As a candidate, President Trump vowed to end the “war on coal” and put miners back to work. And over the first year of his presidency, Trump and his administration have moved quickly to overturn several Obama-era regulations on mining and energy production. Most notably, in October, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt declared the end of the “war on coal” when he signed a rule overturning the Clean Power Plan.

Since the administration’s opening salvo to save coal country, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the industry is starting its comeback. Most recently, during a rally in Pensacola, Fla., Trump assured his supporters that there is “1,000 years” worth of coal buried in the ground, insisting that miners are “back to work” tapping into the reserves. But Trump’s estimate of the coal supply seemed too good to be true, especially because he paused briefly while searching for the figure. Still, his estimate was met with applause.

The bold claim prompted us to take a closer look at the Trump administration’s special interest in the coal industry. Over the months, we have awarded numerous Pinocchios to Trump and others in his administration for misrepresenting the facts about coal.

It seems like every chance he can get, Trump tries to reassure out-of-work miners that their jobs will return, and other members of the administration echo the president’s sentiments. But many of their claims are at odds with the market forces that led to coal’s decline.

Here’s a summary of some of the administration’s biggest coal claims.

“We’ve lifted the restrictions on American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean, beautiful coal, of which we have 1,000 years of supply.” (Dec. 8, 2017)

During the rally in Pensacola, Trump assured his supporters that there is enough coal to last 1,000 years. And although the United States has the second-largest recoverable coal reserves in the world, according to the Energy Information Administration, the total amount of coal is hard to measure. That’s because coal is buried in the ground.

To address the measuring challenges, coal is broken into several categories: recoverable coal reserves, which refers to coal that can be feasibly mined with today’s technology; demonstrated reserve base, which refers to 100 percent of the measured coal that could be mined; and total reserve, which is the best estimate of all the coal in the ground.

The EIA’s best estimate of the total reserves is 3.9 trillion short tons, while the reserve base and recoverable reserves are far smaller, at 477 billion and 255 billion short tons, respectively. The Energy Information Administration said in 2015 that the United States had about 283 years of reserves left, based on that year’s production figures. Based on the average annual amount of coal produced since 2010, 0.95 billion short tons, the country’s estimated recoverable coal reserves would last a little more than 250 years. That’s about 750 years less than Trump estimated. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

We award Trump Four Pinocchios.

“If you look at what’s happened in West Virginia and so many different places, we’re sending clean coal. We’re sending it out to different places — China. A lot of coal ordered in China right now. So a lot of things are changing, and they’re changing very rapidly.” (Dec. 5, 2017)

Trump claims West Virginia is exporting “clean coal” to China. But this is wrong for two reasons. One, in 2015 and 2016, West Virginia exported virtually no coal to China. Two, there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Electricity-generating plants can mitigate some of the effects of burning coal by capturing carbon dioxide and burying it, but that doesn’t make the coal itself cleaner. And more important, the bulk of the exports of coal to China involve metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel, not generate electricity.

Trump claims “things are changing’ in West Virginia thanks to his administration’s policies. But again Trump is trying to take credit for things outside his control. Market forces and external factors, such as China imposing regulations on mining its domestic coal supply, coupled with an increased demand for coking coal, have contributed to a price surge, making it cheaper to import coal from the United States.

Trump received Three Pinocchios.

“One thing that I am very proud of: the state of West Virginia. Last month, it was one of the highest percentage increases in GDP, the state of Texas beat it. And people are saying, wait a minute, West Virginia just came in second. Do you know what that is about? That is about cutting regulations and letting the people go and mine.” (Oct. 11, 2017)

Trump takes credit for West Virginia’s economic gains, but it’s undeserved. For one, when the first quarter ended March 31, 2017, Trump was just two months into his presidency. While he was quick to do away with several regulations on energy production, many of the new policies have yet to take effect. The state’s recent growth is due to increased mining production and a rise in prices for coal and natural gas.

According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, mining grew by 26.4 percent in West Virginia in the first quarter of 2017, and “data from EIA shows gains in the extraction of coal, natural gas, and petroleum bolstered mining in the state.” The increase in extraction coincided with an increase in the price of metallurgical coal and natural gas. In the first quarter of 2017, the price of metallurgical coal exports was $153 per short ton, up from $76 in the third quarter of 2016. For the first nine months of 2017, the price of natural gas was $3 per million British thermal units on average, up from a 2016 average of just under $2.50 per million BTUs.

Trump earned Four Pinocchios.

“The [Paris Climate Agreement] effectively blocks the development of clean coal in America. And the mines are starting to open up, having a big opening in two weeks, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, so many places.” (June 1, 2017)

Trump’s characterization about new mines and “clean carbon” technology, both in the context of the Paris agreement, is misleading.

He referred to new mines opening, but the projects he referred to are for a specific type of coal that is used to produce steel, not electricity. The Paris deal focuses on carbon emissions from electricity-generating coal, not metallurgical coal. Demands in metallurgical coal aren’t affected by the Paris agreement or U.S. federal policies; international market prices and fluctuations have led to the recent increase in demand. Moreover, the specific factory he refers to had plans to open since September 2016, two months before the presidential election.

The agreement also does not block the development of “clean coal.” In fact, since the United States signed on to the Paris agreement, the first large-scale “clean coal” facility opened in 2017, and plans are underway for a second one.

Trump earned Three Pinocchios.

“Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we’ve added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector. In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs.” (June 4, 2017)

During several media appearances, the EPA’s Pruitt proudly claimed that 50,000 coal jobs were created since Trump took office. But his numbers were a gross exaggeration.

From January to May, the United States gained 33,000 jobs in “mining and coal,” according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a few thousand short of Pruitt’s claim of 50,000 new jobs. But that’s not the biggest problem with his figures. Most of the gain in “mining” jobs had nothing to do with coal. Most of the new jobs were in a subcategory called “support activities for mining,” which accounted for more than 30,000 of the jobs since January.

The reality was that at the time, 1,000 coal jobs had been added since Trump became president, though the BLS later adjusted it down to 800 jobs. For the month of May, the gain was 200 jobs, not 7,000.

Administration officials may have been too quick to tout the gains. Preliminary data on coal mining jobs from the BLS show that from October to November the coal industry lost 700 jobs and 400 more from November to December. So, since Trump became president, the gain in coal jobs is 500, or just 1 percent.

Pruitt tried to take advantage of the BLS job labels to suggest that there has been a huge gain in coal/mining jobs, in part by reaching back months before Trump entered the White House. And his claim is even less true today than it was in May.

Pruitt earned Four Pinocchios.

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Four Pinocchios
“We’ve lifted the restrictions on American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean, beautiful coal, of which we have 1,000 years of supply.”
in a speech in Pensacola, Fla.
Friday, December 8, 2017