The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lie, deny, misdirect: Coal nostalgia is having its last gasp

J.D. Vance, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, attends a campaign rally at the Westmoreland Fair Grounds in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

At a moment when an important bill addressing climate change is on the verge of passage thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — the most powerful advocate the coal industry has in Washington — coal’s most fervent defenders are going back to the strategy they have long pursued to deal with coal’s decline.

First, lie to voters in coal country, telling them all the old coal jobs might return, and bring prosperity with them. Second, fight against anything that might actually help the downtrodden citizens of those places construct a future after coal’s inevitable demise.

It shows that in some ways, coal is less important as an industry than it is as a symbol.

On Thursday, West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore placed five major financial institutions on a list that makes them ineligible for state business. Why? Because he has determined that their tentative steps to shift investments away from fossil fuels amount to a “boycott.”

So if they’re not going to support coal, West Virginia is going to boycott them. Take that, fancy Wall Street bankers!

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Elsewhere, the agreement between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was treated as a betrayal of the people of coal country. “Manchin’s Spending Bill Shafts Coal Miners,” trumpeted the conservative Daily Caller. On Fox News, Sean Hannity said Manchin “gave in to the radical climate alarmist cult, new green deal cult,” adding that the deal will hurt the people of Manchin’s state “dramatically.”

And Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance, guardian of Appalachia, took a stand against green energy:

So the current iteration of the character known as J.D. Vance is adamantly against modern renewable energy, and would prefer instead to promote bitter nostalgia for an industry everyone knows is dying.

But in a previous iteration — in “Hillbilly Elegy”, the best-selling book that made his name — Vance offered brutally candid criticism of the same struggling folks he’s now trying to pander to. While chastising his own people as afflicted by numerous social pathologies, including laziness, hypocrisy and a penchant for violence, he said this:

We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

Now Vance wants to pander to those same delusions, that coal jobs disappeared not because of automation and competition from cheaper sources of fuel but because nasty Democrats care too much about elitist renewable energy.

Like more than a few Republican politicians, Vance is a smart guy who thinks his target voters are stupid or uninformed. That may not be an outlandish thing to believe, at least on this topic. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he told West Virginians that he’d bring back lost coal jobs. “Get ready,” he informed miners, “because you’re going to be working your asses off.”

It was a lie, but they ate it up. Then in 2020, despite the fact that the jobs didn’t come back, they gave him their votes with just as much enthusiasm as they had four years before.

About those jobs: You can calculate the number of jobs in the coal industry in different ways, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration says that 42,000 Americans worked in coal in 2020, down from 52,000 the year before Trump took office. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number at 36,740 in 2021. Either way, it’s a minuscule figure, amounting to around 1 in every 4,000 American jobs, and it keeps getting smaller.

Coal is more important in some places than others, of course. In announcing the blow he struck at Wall Street, Moore cited a report arguing that the coal industry “supports” 33,000 jobs in West Virginia, which includes many people who don’t work directly in coal. Even if that’s accurate, it means coal accounts for about 4 percent of the jobs in West Virginia. Which is not nothing, but it’s also not the future.

What all these Republicans have in common goes beyond their repetition of the fable that standing forcefully against liberals will revive the coal industry and restore the days when their constituents had good mining jobs. (Of course they don’t mention that what was good about those jobs was made possible by labor unions against whom they’ve waged war for decades.)

It’s also their steadfast resistance to doing anything to prepare for what is inevitably coming, a future in which renewables are the dominant energy source. Those Democrats on whom they heap such scorn are positively desperate to offer jobs and economic development to communities once built around coal. But the Republicans who govern them say, “Hell no — we’d rather cling to this shriveling industry and tell people a great coal revival is just around the corner.”

We all know it isn’t. Now just imagine if the voters in these places found the wherewithal to tell Republicans to stop lying to them and do something to make a better future. They haven’t done it yet, but every election — including the one just three months away — gives them another opportunity.