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Why putting coal miners out of work is a very bad thing to say in West Virginia

The below post is from last week. We are re-upping it in light of Tuesday's West Virginia primary.

One of the better representations of the current political moment came on Thursday night in Charleston, W.Va.

Donald Trump -- wearing, as always, a dark suit, white shirt and long tie -- welcomed representatives of the West Virginia Coal Association on the stage during his superfluous campaign event in the state. (After all, he's running unopposed at this point.) In front of a backdrop of audience members, some holding signs reading "Trump digs coal," the men came up, presenting Trump with a hard hat. Trump, after waiting for a bit, put the hat on. Mugging, he mimicked a shoveling motion, as though he was down in the mines, digging out coal.

Here was a man born into wealth, who lives in a Manhattan skyscraper and who pivoted from the moment to start complaining about hairspray. But: The crowd went bananas.

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton was in the state, and she got a much different reaction. Clinton is not much more blue-collar than Trump, but her political position is trickier. Unlike Trump, who running as a Republican can simply embrace the coal industry without qualms, Clinton represents a party that prioritizes action on climate change. And climate change has been directly linked to all of the coal that West Virginians (and Kentuckians and Pennsylvanians and so on) have dug out of the ground for so many years.

Asked by a member of the audience about how she'd pitch herself to poor white voters in the general election during a March CNN town hall, Clinton offered a clumsy response.

"I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country," she said. "Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." She went on to explain her vision for transitioning coal workers to new jobs, but the line stuck. So when she held a smaller event in the state on Monday, a visibly emotional coal miner, Bo Copley, asked her about it.

"How you could say you are going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend?" Copley asked. Clinton admitted the comment was a mistake, saying that "[w]hat I want you to know is I’m going to do everything I can to help, no matter what happens politically." (Somewhat remarkably, a new poll released Friday has Clinton trailing Bernie Sanders by only four points in the state.)

Political campaigns are about convincing voters that you will make their lives better. This is much easier on a city level than on a state level -- and much, much easier on a state level than on a national level. A mayor can just talk about cutting gun violence, while a senator has to also talk about protecting the rights of hunters. For a national politician in a party worried about the environment, Clinton has to balance West Virginia's coal jobs with California's climate concerns. She needs to offer those coal miners some assurances, and your-job-will-leave-but-we-will-help isn't a great one. Especially compared to Trump's we'll-bring-your-job-back.

"Our county, our state, everything has been on the decline, and it’s pushing everybody out of the state of West Virginia," one coal miner told West Virginia public radio "So, it kind of gives people a sense of hope to even be a coal miner."

But that's politics. In reality, it's Clinton's articulation of the problem and solution that is closer to the truth.

Coal jobs have been declining for a long time: 30 years ago, there were nearly three times as many miners as there are now. That decrease ripples outward to the jobs that support the miners -- like Copley, who was a maintenance planner for a coal company before being laid off.

Part of that decline was a function of efficiency improvements. Part of it, too, was the shifting economy. And part of it was that it gets harder to mine coal as time passes, because veins that are closer to the surface have already been depleted.

In the early 2000s, coal mining made a slight comeback -- but in recent years, the decline has worsened. In the past five years, there's been a dramatic decrease in the amount of coal produced and used in the United States, as well as a drop in coal exports.

There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are linked to actions by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency to reduce emissions from coal-powered electricity generation, the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. (Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere prevents heat from escaping into space, contributing to warming.) The Obama administration also added new restrictions on a process called "mountaintop removal," which essentially blasted away hillsides to get to harder-to-reach veins of coal.

But the shift is also due to the simultaneous expansion of hydraulic fracturing -- a.k.a. "fracking" -- which caused a glut of natural gas to enter the market, prompting power generators to switch to burning gas instead of coal to save costs and reduce emissions.

The effects on the coal industry have been significant. And since the coal industry is largely centered in a few small geographic areas, those effects have been much more damaging in places like West Virginia.

Coal jobs in the state have gotten crushed in the past few years.

Twenty-five years ago, 1 out of 14 jobs in the state was a coal-mining job. Now that figure is 1 in 28.

The question at hand, though, is if that trend can be reversed -- as Trump claims -- or if those workers need to prepare for something else, as Clinton suggests.

There's not much evidence that the industry can be revived. There will continue to be public pressure on the use of coal as the effects of climate change continue to be felt, and with natural gas prices remaining low, the use of cheaper, cleaner fuel will remain more enticing for producers. The nature of the coal marketplace has changed.

A good analogue is manufacturing jobs. Over time, manufacturing jobs in the United States have dropped precipitously, though they've recovered somewhat since the recession.

But that's only as a raw count. As a percentage of all jobs in the U.S., both manufacturing and coal mining have dropped significantly -- and even the recent growth in count is a flat line in percentage.

When it became economically advantageous to move manufacturing overseas, that's exactly what happened. Despite many politicians' pledges to former manufacturing strongholds, there's little leverage to get manufacturers to bring production back to the United States once again -- and lots of incentive for it not to be done here. The factors at play are different, but coal's in a similar position. Stopgaps can be introduced; long-term recovery is highly unlikely.

But politics are politics. So you get a guy donning a hard hat and resolutely shoveling imaginary coal, pledging to turn back the clock -- a guy who looks more like the owner of a coal company than a guy whose family has worked the mines for decades. For everything Trump was shoveling, though, he was also offering hope.