Trump’s promises have some coal miners optimistic — so they’re staying in the industry

Low natural gas prices will likely continue to keep the coal market weak. Above, a coal mound in Shelbiana, Kentucky. - 

At a gymnasium in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, Trenton Phillips is looking for a job as a coal miner. Phillips already works at a company that fixes beltlines at coal mines. He’s at a county job fair today where there are booths for jobs in industries like health care and trucking — but Phillips is only stopping at a booth for a coal mine contractor. He wants a job as a mine foreman or supervisor.

“I'm currently looking for something where I can advance maybe one day, be somewhere higher up, not have to break my back and use my head a little more,” Phillips said.

Phillips is 25 and he got a job at a union coal mine after graduating high school six years ago, during better times for the coal industry. With overtime, he said he made up to $90,000 a year.

“It was pretty much boomin' when I was coming right out of high school so that seemed like the thing to do,” Phillips said.

The mine closed in 2015. So Phillips drove a truck in the oil and gas industry for a year. But the hours were unpredictable, and when a job opened up at the belt repair company, he grabbed it.

He said he’s not afraid of another coal industry slump, now that President Donald Trump is in the White House. Trump has made reviving the coal industry a signature goal of his, and many coal miners are taking this promise to heart.

“Now everything seems to be going back up and it's going in the right direction,” Phillips said.  

The coal industry has rebounded — a bit. This has more to do with foreign demand and rising natural gas prices than any of Trump’s pro-coal policies, said Dan Klein of S&P Global Platts, a company that analyzes energy trends.

“There's been very little measurable impact of what the administration has done and to be honest there's very little that could be done,” Klein said.

That’s because low natural gas prices should continue to keep the market for coal weak. Coal production is up this year, but it’s still not close to the level it was at when Phillips first started working in the industry in 2011. And the Department of Energy says coal demand will remain more or less flat for the next couple of years. 

Coal mining has been a tradition in Elton Reha’s family for generations. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all coal miners. But Reha isn’t looking to go back underground. At a McDonald’s near Pittsburgh, Reha took a lunch break from his job with a national lawn care company, where he’s a lead technician on a small crew.

Elton Reha used to work in coal mines before an injury. Now he works for a lawn care company near Pittsburgh and says he won’t go back underground.  - 

Reha is in his 40s, and is a father of two. He earns around $40,000 a year, close to what he made working as a contractor in coal mines. He left the coal industry five years ago, when he suffered a bad hernia pulling on a heavy chain. Since then, the coal industry has slumped — big time.  

“I've watched three of my family members lose their job with the coal mines ... and the coal companies they work for say 'Oh, we'll get you back. We'll get you back. We'll get you back,’” Reha said. But they never did get their jobs back.

Reha said coal mining has done a lot of good. “I know what this country was built on ... I’ll never forget that,” Reha said. “But times are changing and for me to be successful in my life, I had to change with it. Not knowing if I have a job ... I know I have a job.”

Lawn care offers steady work  — and now, Reha said he’s up for a promotion to management, with more responsibilities, and more pay. 

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