with Alexandra Ellerbeck

In 2016, coal was central to Donald Trump's pitch for the White House. This year, it's barely a passing mention. 

Speakers at this year's Republican National Convention did not focus on rescuing the struggling coal industry and its workers. 

Four years after hosting campaign rallies with miners in hard hats, pledging to revive the industry after what he called eight years of neglect from former president Barack Obama, the sector continues to struggle while Trump is in office. That's a fact Republicans probably didn't want to put on center stage this week. 

Instead, this year President Trump and other Republicans are touting growth in gas and oil production under his watch — at least until the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Over the nights of convention speeches, only a handful of Republicans made any reference to coal.

During his speech at the White House accepting his party's nomination, Trump warned that Democratic nominee Joe Biden wanted to get rid of coal and other fossil fuel and make American vulnerable to blackouts like the ones seen wildfire-scorched California this month.

“Biden has promised to abolish the production of American oil, coal, shale and natural gas, laying waste to the economies of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico — destroying those states, absolutely destroying those states, and others,” Trump said. “Millions of jobs will be lost, and energy prices will soar.” 

Earlier in the week, Eric Trump, the president's son, gave a shout-out to “our coal miners” as he listed supporters for which his father would advocate if given a second term. “To our farmers who work dawn to dust to keep our plates full, my father will fight for you,” he said. “To every single mother and father, to our veterans, our coal miners, and to the American worker, my father will fight for you.”

But that's about it. By contrast, other sorts of blue-collar workers — a Minnesota logger, a Maine lobsterman and a Wisconsin dairy farmer, among others — spoke during this year's convention to extol Trump's efforts to reduce environmental regulations on them. 

It's a far cry from the GOP messaging last time. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of the coal-producing state of West Virginia spent much her speech four years ago making an impassioned plea to stop then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from taking office because of her “anti-coal agenda.” While she and others spoke, delegates waved black-and-yellow “Trump Digs Coal” signs.

“She wants to put thousands more Americans out of work,” Capito said. “She has promised to devastate communities and families across coal country." 

“I weep for the fabric of my state,” she added.

On the campaign trail, Trump excoriated Clinton for promising to put coal companies out of business. “It is the last shot for the miners,” Trump said that August. “Hillary will be a horror show, and I’ll be an unbelievable positive,” he continued. “The miners will be gone if she’s elected.”

If anything, Biden has an even more aggressive plan than Clinton for shutting down coal-fired power plants and replacing them with cleaner forms of energy to combat climate change.

Trump has followed through on some pledges – but coal is still faltering in the face of cheaper energy.

The 2016 Republican platform called coal “clean” and vowed to end President Barack Obama's “war on coal” by repealing the Clean Power Plan and rejecting the Paris climate agreement — both of which Trump did after taking office. The Trump administration also rolled back a rule meant to protect streams from mining pollution and exempted more industrial activities from environmental review that coal companies say unnecessarily delays projects.

But coal-fired power has been in decline since the Obama administration as it has been replaced by gas, solar and wind power. An estimated 39,000 megawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity has shut down during Trump's first three years in office, according to an analysis from Reuters.

In turn, the number of U.S. coal jobs dropped by 7,100, or about 14 percent, between May 2017 and May 2020, according to federal data.

With coal jobs still not coming back, it is unclear what new steps Trump would take with four more years in office to help the coal business. In June, the GOP punted on writing a new party platform and simply adopted the 2016 one. 

Trump's own speech focused more on oil and gas. 

The president chose to tout his revival of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines early in 2017, though both projects have faced legal challenges more recently. He also noted how low fuel prices currently are, though a big reason for that recently is the drop in energy demand during the pandemic. “For those of you that still drive a car, look how low your gasoline bill is,” Trump said. “You haven’t seen that in a long time.” 

Trump also touted how he successfully pressured the Tennessee Valley Authority to rehire American tech workers that the federally owned utility has sought to outsource abroad.

Until the pandemic crippled driving and flying, petroleum production grew under Trump's watch to the point last year where the United States became a net energy exporter — a frequent talking point of Trump and other Republicans this week.

“Where this president achieved energy independence for the United States,” Vice President Pence said during his acceptance speech Wednesday, “Joe Biden would abolish fossil fuels, end fracking and impose a regime of climate change regulations that would dramatically change the cost of living for working families.” 

President Trump closed out the Republican National Convention on Aug 28. Here’s what you missed from his speech to a crowd in front of the White House. (The Washington Post)
This appears part of a pattern of fewer coal mentions during Trump's last few years. 

In 2018, Trump appointees on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a plan from then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize financially struggling coal and nuclear plants. 

Since then, Trump has talked up coal less during major speeches. While Trump declared “we have ended the war on clean coal” during his 2018 State of the Union address, the president didn't mention it at all during his next two addresses to Congress.  

Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said Republicans at this point would have a hard time turning coal into a winning talking point. 

“They are not talking about coal for the same reason they are not talking about covid, for the same reason they are not talking about unemployment,” he said. “Coal miners are worse off today than they were four year ago.”

The coal industry says it cares a lot more about what Trump does than what he says.

Conor Bernstein, spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents mining companies in Washington, said his organization is happy to see the Trump administration quietly get rid of “punitive regulations” without any accompanying rhetorical bluster. 

“Our focus is less on political rhetoric from either party and more on common-sense action that supports reliable, affordable energy for all Americans,” he said.

Myron Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and Environment who led Trump's transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, said that speeches aside, the president and his deputies have done nothing in office to alienate the coal business.

“I have seen nothing that President Trump or his administration have done that is anti-coal,” he said, adding, “What coal miners and the industry want is to be treated fairly, and I think President Trump has done that.”

Latest on Hurricane Laura

Hurricane Laura slammed into southern Louisiana in the early hours of Thursday morning as a Category 4 storm.

Packing winds of 150 mph, it was the strongest hurricane by wind speed to ever hit southwestern Louisiana and ranked in the top 10 of all hurricanes to make landfall in the continental United States, my colleague Jason Samenow reports.

The hurricane destroyed entire neighborhoods and left 900,000 homes and businesses without power. As of Thursday evening, officials had connected six deaths to the storm, although that number could rise.

During the RNC, Trump said he would visit communities hit by the storm over the weekend. 

He also credited state and federal authorities for the fact that casualties fell short of some predictions.

“While the hurricane was fierce, one of the strongest to make landfall in 150 years, the casualties and damage were far less than thought possible, only 24 hours ago,” Trump said. “And this is due to the great work of FEMA, law enforcement, and the individual states.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) similarly said on Thursday that the destruction of the storm fell short of some of the worst-case scenarios, but pointed out that the damage from the storm was massive.

“We have sustained a tremendous amount of damage." Edwards said.

Storm surges may have been lower than some forecasters predicted, although scientists still do not have complete data. Officials had warned of “unsurvivable” flooding.

“Preliminary storm-surge data indicate that seas rose at least nine feet above normally dry land. Although that number is lower than the projected 15 to 20 feet, observing stations are few along the Louisiana coast, so the true height of the maximum surge is not yet known,” Samenow writes.

Laura weakened to a tropical storm as it made its way inland but maintained wind speeds of more than 65 mph as it headed toward Arkansas on Thursday evening.

Laura barreled through a region home to petrochemical plants, half the nation’s refineries, and oil and gas wells.

Near Lake Charles, La., a city of about 78,000 that was particularly hard-hit, an industrial plant caught fire, billowing toxic smoke through the area and triggering a shelter-in-place order.

“Trouble began early Thursday at a BioLab plant that manufacturers chlorine for swimming pools and disinfectants. An unknown amount of chlorine began to decompose sometime during the storm, generating heat and sparking a fire,” my colleagues Steven Mufson and Darryl Fears report, based on comments from the Louisiana state police. 

The smoke from the plant carried an unknown amount of chlorine gas, which can cause blistering of the skin and respiratory distress.

“It was the most vivid example of environmental damage resulting from Hurricane Laura,” Mufson and Fears write. 

Many oil and gas companies shut down or slowed production in advance of the storm, and some were still assessing damage as of late Thursday.

But the oil markets seemed largely undisturbed, Mufson and Fears write. 

“The market is really shrugging this off,” Jeff Mower of S&P Global told The Post. Mower said between Friday and Tuesday, prices of gas to be delivered in September climbed by 11 cents; since Tuesday they’ve dropped 10 cents.

Environmentalists are less sanguine since in the lead up to the storm, many oil refineries said they released gases at levels exceeding regulations as they shut down in preparation.

Motiva Enterprises in Port Arthur was one such plant. In a filing to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality it said that it released benzene, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds in excess of legal limits. 

Marathon Petroleum, for its part, “reported that as many as 14 contaminants were flared at nine different parts of its Galveston Bay refinery as it prepared for the hurricane,” Mufson and Fears write.

Scientists say Hurricane Laura’s rapid intensification is a sign of a warming planet.

Hurricane Laura tied the record for the fastest intensification of any hurricane. The transformation was one of the fastest on record in the Gulf of Mexico, matched only by 2010’s Hurricane Karl.

“Surveying the Gulf of Mexico late Tuesday afternoon, National Hurricane Center experts saw a Category 1 hurricane — dangerous, but not likely to cause major damage,” my colleagues Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman write. “Twenty-four hours later, Hurricane Laura was unrecognizable. It had rocketed into a high-end Category 4 storm, with wind speeds of nearly 145 mph.”

While there may be several factors behind the rapidly intensifying storms, including atmospheric and oceanic cycles, scientists are increasingly seeing evidence that climate change and warming waters may be driving the change.

Storms have also become more frequent with this year being particularly active.

Meteorologist Philip Klozbach:

“As the planet heats up, warm tropical ocean water from the surface down to a depth of tens of meters or more provides energy for hurricanes. With more energy, the storm strengthens faster than it typically would,” Mooney and Freedman report.

Climate activist Bill McKibben:

While the intensification of Hurricane Laura was hard to predict, the National Hurricane Center nailed predictions on the storm's path.

“Three and a half days before Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron, La., the National Hurricane Center predicted where it would come ashore within 0.6 miles. Not only did it peg the location near the Texas-Louisiana border but it forecast the exact hour it would cross the coastline: 2 a.m. Eastern,” my colleague Jason Samenow reports.

This precision can be crucial for saving lives and for many reinforced confidence in the National Hurricane Center.