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Shanmugam '23: Trump’s failure to rekindle the coal industry

On March 4, 2020, President Christina Paxson P’19 informed the Brown community that the University’s Investment Office was stepping away from fossil fuels once and for all. 

The announcement – which followed years of student protests emphasizing that the University’s dirty energy investments were helping enable climate change – was celebrated, and rightfully so. Yet a closer reading of President Paxson’s letter suggests that the decision to sell was motivated not by activism, but by cold, hard strategy: “The decision to halt investments in fossil fuel extraction companies reflects the view that, as the world shifts to sustainable energy sources, investments in fossil fuels carry too much long-term financial risk.”

Among fossil fuels, no sector has declined more drastically than coal in recent years. Even outside the Van Wickle Gates, the economic headwinds that Big Coal faces – more the result of market forces than activism – are obvious. Cheap renewable energy and growing natural gas are killing the coal sector at a quickening rate. By the end of President Trump’s four years in office, the amount of coal Americans use for power generation is projected to fall by a third; it took a full eight years for coal consumption to decrease by a similar proportion under President Obama. President Trump’s efforts, from the provision of subsidies to coal companies to the dialing back of EPA regulations, haven’t been enough to reverse an acute and accelerating trend: the end of the coal industry. This amounts to yet another broken campaign promise – with disastrous political ramifications for President Trump.

A self-proclaimed capitalist – who seems to smell socialism in every corner of the Democratic party – Trump went on an interventionist warpath soon after taking office, hoping to fulfill his oxymoronomic promise to protect “beautiful, clean coal.” A leaked memo from 2018 reveals a proposal to use emergency authority to require grid operators to buy coal-generated electricity. Even at the state level, the administration is warping market incentives: A Trump campaign advisor made calls to Ohio state lawmakers in May 2019 pressuring them to vote for House Bill 6, adding a $1.50 surcharge to residential electricity bills that goes toward subsidizing two struggling coal plants. And just earlier this year, President Trump released a budget proposal for 2021 demanding a $2.4 billion cut to federal renewable energy investment.  

The numbers are dizzying. So why is coal still dying?

One reason is that even when hopped up on government subsidies, coal cannot compete with the explosion in fracking capacity that has made the United States the world’s largest producer of natural gas. America has also been the biggest producer of oil in the world since 2013, and since then, in almost every region of the country, the cost of natural gas-generated electricity has decreased rapidly – as much as 33 percent since last year in the Middle Atlantic. Even renewables are now cheaper than 75 percent of national coal production. Many coal plants are over 100 years old; Obama-era environmental regulations make it impossible to generate coal power cheaply. We’re watching the industry collapse before our eyes: from 2010 to the beginning of 2019, 546 coal plants were retired

The upshot is that President Trump has broken his campaign promise. This is particularly significant because the people he promised — coal miners — voted solidly Republican in 2016. For proof that they bought his promise to revive their industry, take Greene County, Pennsylvania. Greene County voted reliably Democratic pre-2008. Then, Barack Obama and John McCain split the county. But by 2016, having lost almost a third of its mining jobs, Greene County went for Trump by 40 points. Trump won big in coal dependent regions throughout Appalachia. In solidly red states such as West Virginia, those breakthroughs probably didn’t affect electoral outcomes. But in Pennsylvania – an electorally rich battleground state – Trump’s hold over coal counties may have made all the difference in his razor-thin 0.72 percent margin of victory.

And Pennsylvania is more important than you might think. Data-driven politics site FiveThirtyEight calls it “the single most important state of the 2020 election.” Its election model gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he wins the Keystone State, and Biden a 96 percent chance. President Trump made a promise he could not keep in 2016; his failure to make good on that vow could mean the difference between victory and defeat. 

Consider, too, that by some measures, the Trump campaign had it easy in 2016. They faced a historically unpopular candidate in Hillary Clinton who had no qualms about coal’s coming demise: “...we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She made the choice easy for residents of Greene County and similarly coal-dependent towns. Joe Biden presents a more formidable challenge and a working class aura – rooted in reality or not – that harkens back to a Democratic party that once captured the votes of coal miners year after year. 

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America union, puts it best: “Coal’s not back. Nobody saved the coal industry.” Against the backdrop of a dying industry, thousands of workers are suffering in a labor crisis that no amount of intervention could stop – in all likelihood, miners will use what little control they have left to affect outcomes at the ballot box. 

Arjun Shanmugam ’23 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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