‘It’s Christmas all over again’: Donald Trump gives new hope to America’s decimated coal towns

Nick Allen
Gillette, Wyoming, where residents hope the revival of the coal industry will reverse their fortunes - Dermot Tatlow

In the shadow of towering coal faces near Gillette, Wyoming there was "jubilation" this week as President Donald Trump eviscerated the climate change legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama and ended the "war on coal".

"It was Christmas all over again," said Louise Carter-King, mayor of the town that styles itself the "energy capital of the nation".

On March 31 last year 465 miners in Gillette were laid off in a single day as coal companies cut back in the wake of Mr Obama's pledge to slash carbon emissions.

After Mr Trump signed his executive order on climate change, announcing a new "American energy revolution", some of those miners are already being hired back.

We are sitting on 600 years supply of clean burning coal, and why would you turn your back on that?

Louise Carter-King

Mrs Carter-King, who's husband is a miner, told the Telegraph: "It was clear Obama had it in for coal and in his second term he went all out with regulations. It's tough to see light at the end of the tunnel when the government is against your industry. March 31, 2016 was one of the darkest days this community has ever seen.

"But now with Trump, I don't agree with him on everything, but this town is jubilant. Our restaurants are full and people are happy. Hope is a wonderful emotion. Hope can go a long way. It's not going to change overnight but we were ignored for eight years and now they're listening. There are going to be more miners."

With an ostentatious sweep of his pen Mr Trump kicked Mr Obama's signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, into the long grass.

The plan aimed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants across America to 32 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This was to meet US obligations under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Mr Trump is still considering whether to withdraw the US from the agreement.

Mr Trump's order also ended an Obama-era moratorium on the leasing of government-owned land for mining. That moratorium had blocked applications from two dozen mining companies to harvest 1.8 billion tons of coal.

Environmentalists say burning that coal alone would release 3.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to running 700 million cars for a year.

In Wyoming they produce about 39 per cent of American coal. Gillette, in the heart of the state's Powder River Basin, is surrounded by a dozen of the country's biggest mines.

The feeling in Gillette is that Mr Obama, and the environmentalists, had it all wrong. "There was a lot of misconception about coal," said Mrs Carter-King. "Everyone thinks we're covered in soot and can't breathe, and have to wear gas asks or something.

Even if it does increase demand in coal, in places like eastern Kentucky, Appalachia, those jobs won't come back because that coal is too expensive to mine

John Yarmuth

"But there are different grades of coal. We are sitting on 600 years supply of clean burning coal, and why would you turn your back on that?"

She argued America should be exporting more clean coal to countries including South Korea, Turkey and China that were "burning anything they can get" no matter how dirty.  "The environmentalists are not informed," she added.

"They have this idea we're polluting the world and don't care. But we live here, why would we want to ruin the Earth? We don't want to leave big holes in the ground. The land is reclaimed."

While Mr Trump has targeted regulations as the killer of coal jobs many experts say a bigger problem is the rise of of cheap natural gas, spurred by the fracking revolution, along with automation of mining.

US coal production fell to 739 million tons last year, which was the lowest in almost four decades. Over the last five years the coal industry lost 60,000 jobs, meaning there are around 77,000 miners left, according to figures from the Labor Department.

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King Credit:  Dermot Tatlow

A decade ago coal's share of the US power market was more than 50 per cent, now it is 32 per cent.

The decline has been particularly stark in the Appalachian region where Mr Trump focused much of his efforts in the election campaign.

More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have gone since 2012, and many experts say Mr Trump's vow to reverse the slide is too late.

"It's one of the most cruel deceptions in the political realm these days," said John Yarmuth, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky. "Even if it does increase demand in coal, in places like eastern Kentucky, Appalachia, those jobs won't come back because that coal is too expensive to mine."

Days after Mr Trump' signed his order the Northern Cheyenne, a Native American tribe in coal-rich Montana, joined with environmental groups the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity, to launch the first legal challenge.

They sued Mr Trump's administration over the lifting of the moratorium on mining leases.

About 426 million tons of coal lie beneath government-owned land near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Tribal Council Chairman Jace Killsback said: "It's alarming and unacceptable for the United States to sign up for decades of harmful coal mining around our homeland."

However, a neighboring tribe, the Crow, backed Mr Trump saying they would benefit economically from more mining.

Mr Trump's Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, said: "A war on coal is a war on the Crow people."

Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, said: "Coal is not coming back. While the president is taking big splashy action, he is actually doomed to fail. It's really just a Hail Mary to a dying industry."