President Trump celebrated the February job gains announced last week in a tweet Tuesday morning that was chock-full of graphics from Fox Business network.
Included in the highlights are two bits of data that were central to Trump’s campaign argument: increases in employment in manufacturing and in mining.
The importance of Trump’s insistence that he would bring back coal mining jobs — a claim he made repeatedly — was reinforced in a recent Post article looking at the concerns of voters in West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian coal country. Our Jessica Contrera spoke with a man named Clyde, who explained the mental calculation that went into his support of Trump last year, despite worries that his election might negatively affect his Medicaid.
As for the other problems in his life, he has put his hopes in Trump, who came to West Virginia saying he would bring back coal and put miners back to work. When Trump mentioned repealing Obamacare, Clyde wasn’t sure what that might mean for his Medicaid. But if he had a job that provided health insurance, he reasoned, he wouldn’t need Medicaid anyway, so he voted for Trump, along with 74 percent of McDowell County.
He recognized that Trump’s pledge to roll back Obamacare was sincere and possible. But he didn’t recognize that Trump’s rhetoric on coal jobs wasn’t.
It’s true that the most recent jobs report showed an uptick in the mining industry. That data, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the evolution of the industry over time. The little box at the end highlights a recent upturn.
But “mining” as an industry is much broader than just coal mining. It’s actually “Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction,” per the BLS definition. Broken out by type, the chart above looks like this.
Comparatively speaking, coal mining makes up only a small part of all of these jobs — about as many jobs as are in the logging industry.
Incidentally, notice where the increase in jobs actually occurred between January and February. It wasn’t in coal mining, where 300 jobs were added. It was mostly in “support activities for mining.” That’s a designation that describes “support services, on a contract or fee basis, required for the mining and quarrying of minerals and for the extraction of oil and gas,” per the BLS. There’s a correlation between the number of support activities jobs and the number of oil and natural gas rigs that are in operation.
That’s not necessarily why support activity employment rose last month, but it has been linked in the past. Whatever the driver in February, the job increase largely wasn’t a function of miners reentering the coal mines.
That’s the broader point: Clyde’s hopes were likely misplaced. The decline in coal employment predates the administration of Barack Obama and ties to a number of complicated factors. There’s improved efficiency, the sort of production gains from automation that helped drive manufacturing employment lower. There’s the fact that coal becomes harder to extract once easy veins are exhausted.
There are also new regulations aimed at discouraging coal use, given the link to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Trump’s rhetoric largely focused on those regulations as the cause of the industry’s problems and, shortly after taking office, he signed an executive order repealing a regulation that was aimed at protecting waterways from pollution. (A 2012 study found that 22 percent of streams in southwestern West Virginia had been polluted by the coal industry.) The repeal was framed as saving 77,000 jobs — something that our fact-checkers found not to be the case. A report from the coal industry estimated that 27 percent of all coal jobs would be lost — but analysis from the Interior Department estimated that the rule would create a net gain in employment, thanks to jobs created to ensure compliance.
What’s particularly interesting about the dynamics at play is that Clyde’s confidence that he might get a new job in coal was undercut by another promise Trump made: to expand oil drilling. Another critical factor in the decline of the coal industry has been the fracking boom, the massive expansion of fossil fuel and natural gas extraction that followed the development of new techniques for drilling into shale. Natural gas is cleaner than coal and has been much cheaper thanks to the amount of gas that’s been extracted. One of the main uses of coal is burning for electricity production, but many plants switched over to natural gas to save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump’s agenda in one place conflicts directly with the already-iffy agenda that Clyde was relying on. And if those mining services jobs were a function of rig counts being about to increase, Clyde’s problem will likely only get worse.
None of this comes as a surprise after Jan. 20. The travails of the coal industry have been clear for some time, and reporting before the election made clear that Clyde’s confidence in Trump restoring the coal industry was almost certainly misplaced. But Trump’s campaign was based on recognizing one key thing: Hope leads to votes. Trump gave Clyde hope, and that got at least one of them a new job.