US coal company to lay off 80 percent of its workers, blames Obama

Will the workers laid off by Murray Energy heed Trump's message of reinstating them in their old jobs or Clinton's message of a new way forward? 

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald/AP/File
In this 2011 photo, 80-year old coal miner, Wiley Cullop, gets ready for work at the Midland Trail No. 2 mine of West Virginia Mine Power Co. in Rupert, W. Va.

Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal company in the US, is warning workers of massive layoffs planned for September, caused in part, Murray claims, by Obama’s environmental regulations. As many as 82 percent of workers could lose their jobs at the company that employs people across six states.

When the up to 4,400 laid-off people turn up to the polls to elect their next president two months later, they’ll have to weigh two responses to the decline of their industry: an attempt to go back to their old jobs, or one that tries to build something new that hasn’t yet been fully imagined.

Trump promises to put these people back to work in the jobs they lost. “We’re going to bring back the coal industry, save the coal industry,” Trump said in May. “I love those people.”

Robert Murray, the controlling owner of Murray, is an ardent Trump supporter and claims the layoffs are “due to the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Barack Obama, and his supporters, and the increased utilization of natural gas to generate electricity.”

Trump won all but 16 of Appalachia’s 420 counties in the primaries, including swaths of western Pennsylvania and Virginia and eastern Ohio, victories that could prove decisive in the general election when he will face presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton whose message to Appalachian region coal workers lacks a comparable applause line.

In a March CNN town hall in Columbus, Ohio, Clinton said, "I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key into coal country, because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

Clinton went on to describe her $30 billion plan for job training, broadband expansion, infrastructure projects, and other development ideas for coal country, but the part people remembered was the negative – that companies will be out of business.

Tightening environmental regulations are a partial explanation for the fact that the coal industry has lost 94 percent of its market value over the past five years, plummeting from $68.6 billion to $4.02 billion, according to Bloomberg, and almost all of America’s biggest coal producers have declared bankruptcy in the past 18 months. The US Department of Energy predicts 2016 will see the largest drop in coal production since data collection began in 1949, driven by a decline in global demand for coal, with the growing availability of natural gas a cheaper, cleaner alternative.

President Obama, blamed for the upcoming layoffs, included in his 2017 fiscal budget a "Power+ Plan" that makes available to states $1 billion over a few years for economic diversification, job creation, job training and other employment services for workers and communities impacted by layoffs in coal mines. Like Clinton, he sees no future for workers in the mines, but seeks to prepare them for other work as he sets out an ambitious agenda for reliance on more renewable fuels.

President Barack Obama's administration has ordered a three-year moratorium on sales of federal coal reserves and recommended the switch from coal to natural-gas-powered plants as a building block to reaching the state-specific greenhouse gas emission-cutting goals laid out in his Clean Power Plan, which was stayed by the Supreme Court in February pending judicial review, and outlines an overall goal of reducing the country’s emissions 32 percent by 2030.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced North America will strive to achieve 50 percent clean power generation by 2025.

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