Forget Coal. Help Coal Workers.

All hat.

Photographer: Mark Lyons/Getty Images

When West Virginians vote in Tuesday's presidential primary, their choices will include Donald Trump, who promises to put coal miners back to work, and Hillary Clinton, who promises to put them out of business. It's not hard to see why Trump has a stronger claim on voters' sympathies.

Confronting Coal

Both of them, it almost goes without saying, are exaggerating -- though, as usual, Trump's exaggeration is more extravagant. The long, slow decline of coal will continue no matter who becomes the next president. The question is what should now sustain the communities devastated by its demise, and how the federal government can help.

There are three main reasons so many coal jobs have disappeared over the last few decades. First, better technology allowed the mining industry to dramatically expand its use of machinery, reducing the number of miners required. Second, equally dramatic technological improvements have allowed drillers to get access to far more natural gas, undercutting coal on price. Unless Trump wants to ban both fracking and heavy machinery, he can't bring back coal.

QuickTake Climate Change

The third reason implicates government policy. By imposing increasingly strict standards on hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants, including mercury, ozone and most recently carbon dioxide, the government has accelerated coal's demise. The case for those rules is overwhelming, both to protect public health and fight climate change.

The Barack Obama administration has proposed more money for job training, as well as shoring up workers' health and retirement funds jeopardized by the bankruptcy of coal companies. Those are reasonable proposals, and Congress should fund them. Clinton would go much further, pledging to spend $30 billion over 10 years on new coal country infrastructure, more broadband Internet access and more generous tax credits, among many other things. Her campaign says the goal is to attract new business to the area.

A more straightforward option is to expand federal assistance to coal miners. In a sense, that's already happening: West Virginia and Kentucky top the list of states with the highest share of their population drawing Social Security disability benefits, at close to twice the national average. A more direct program might simply cut checks to healthy but out-of-work miners, who could then use the money to pay for more education, to retire early or, if they so wish, to move. Depending on the size of the check, it might even be cost-effective -- since 2000, the number of Americans working as coal miners has never exceeded 88,000.

The government is right to discourage the use of coal, which is harmful to both the planet and the humans who inhabit it. The government also has an obligation to help repair the livelihoods of those affected by its policy. There's bound to be more than one approach, and the next administration will need to be creative.

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