Coal Jobs Aren’t Coming Back, No Matter What the Trump Administration Says

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Scott Pruitt on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," defending the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. MSNBC

They did it for Pittsburgh. As he withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement last week, President Donald Trump made clear that the interests of the American worker were even more important than the inexorable destruction of the planet.

In the days that followed, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, known for his close relationship with the energy sector during his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, made several press appearances in which he made an astonishing claim, one that seemed to bolster Trump’s argument of putting jobs ahead of the environment: “Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we’ve added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs.”

He repeated the claim as he made his circuit of Sunday political talk shows.

This is an incredible number. It would be even more incredible if it were true. Alas, it is not. As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler points out, during Trump’s short and turbulent time in the Oval Office, only about 1,000 coal jobs have been added nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So where does 50,000 come from? In subsequent press appearance on Sunday, Pruitt referred to coal and mining jobs, seemingly recognizing that he’d grossly inflated the number of coal jobs gained, yet badly wanting the original number to stick with the public as one of the administration's beloved "alternative facts."

In fact, as Kessler and others have noted, 50,000 is also both an inflation and misrepresentation. That number has to do with jobs gained in a sector identified by the BLS as “support activities for mining,” of which there have been about 30,000 added since Trump took office. Nor can those gains be attributed to Trump’s striking down of Obama-era environmental regulations. Rather, it’s a simple swing of the market, as Kessler explains: "The plunge in oil prices that started in 2014 wiped out nearly 200,000 jobs in the oil and gas support sector by October, but a recent stabilization in oil prices has helped bring some of those jobs back. It has little to do with administration policy—and nothing to do with coal mining."

It is Republican mantra that environmental regulations are a “job killer” and that American industry is being hampered by Prius-driving liberals who wouldn’t know a coal mine from an iron smelter. Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have long made the argument, even as major corporations like General Electric go increasingly green, in recognition of the high costs of climate change.

That coal is a dying industry is not a liberal wish but confirmable fact. For one, solar and wind power are now cheaper than fossil fuels. That’s one of several reasons that a report by the federal Department of Energy last year found that coal production had dropped precipitously in recent years, to levels not seen since 1981.

At the same time, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the disastrous ramifications of global warming. A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change conducted last month found that 69 percent of registered voters polled nationwide wanted the United States to stay in the Paris agreement.

But now we’re out, and the Trump administration is having a difficult time of making the case for why that was necessary. In large part, it has relied on the Pittsburgh-not-Paris politics of resentment mastered by chief White House strategist and ultra-nationalist Steve Bannon.

Pruitt’s defense of those policies, though, continues to go poorly. On Tuesday, the EPA chief appeared on Morning Joe, smirking away as he explained that “when you make decisions on environmental decisions internationally that we put America’s interests first.”

An irritated Joe Scarborough had none of it, pressing Pruitt: “Mr. Pruitt, it’s a simple question. Have you ever talked to the president about whether he believes climate change is real?”

Instead of answering the question, Pruitt fell back on his talking points.

Or at least tried to.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Scarborough interrupted, growing visibly annoyed. “I got to stop. I want to stop it. This interview has to stop in its tracks until I just get a yes/no answer from you on whether you think it’s important that Americans find out whether their president believes that climate change is a conspiracy theory based out of China.”

Pruitt eventually conceded that Trump does understand that the climate is changing.