The demise of coal-fired power plants in Arizona and Kentucky shows how the president, despite promises to restore jobs, failed to counter the forces decimating the industry
By Eric Lipton
The New York Times|
Oct 05, 2020 at 5:16 PM
PAGE, ARIZ. — For decades, waves of electricity poured from this behemoth of a power plant on the high desert plateau of the Navajo reservation in northwestern Arizona, lighting up hundreds of thousands of homes from Phoenix to Las Vegas as it burned 240 rail cars' worth of coal a day.
But as the day shift ended here at the Navajo Generating Station one evening early this year, all but a half-dozen spaces in the employee parking lot — a stretch of asphalt larger than a football field — were empty.
It was a similar scene at the nearby Kayenta coal mine, which fueled the plant. Dozens of the giant earth-moving machines that for decades ripped apart the hillside sat parked in long rows, motionless. Not a single coal miner was in sight, just a big, black Chihuahuan raven sitting atop a light post.
Saving these two complexes was at the heart of an intense three-year effort by the Trump administration to stabilize the coal industry and make good on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to end “the war on coal.”
“We’re going to put our miners back to work,” Trump promised soon after taking office.
Despite Trump stocking his administration with coal-industry executives and lobbyists, taking big donations from the industry, rolling back environmental regulations and intervening directly in cases like the Arizona power plant and mine, coal’s decline has only accelerated in recent years.
And with the president now in the closing stages of his struggling reelection campaign, his failure to live up to his pledge challenges his claim to be a champion of working people and to restore what he portrayed four years ago as the United States' lost industrial might.
The story of the complex in Arizona demonstrates the lengths the administration went to in helping a favored industry, the limits of its ability to counter powerful economic forces pushing in the other direction and ultimately Trump’s quiet retreat from his promises.
In the years after Trump’s election, the federal government offered help valued at as much as $1 billion to keep this one power plant and coal mine up and running by embracing an industry plan to relax costly air-quality requirements.
A Republican lawmaker from Arizona sought to force one of the state’s largest utilities to continue to buy power from the plant. Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, offered to discount the price of the coal it was selling the power plant from the Kayenta mine.
None of it proved to be enough. By late last year, both the Kayenta mine and the Navajo Generating Station had gone offline, a high-profile example of the industry’s broader collapse and the resulting economic and political aftershocks.
Alvin Long, 61, who spent nearly three decades maintaining the earth-moving machines at the Kayenta mine before it closed and remains unemployed, said the past several years have led him to reassess his political allegiance. After backing Republicans since the 1970s and voting for Trump in 2016, he said he was leaving the party.
“We really thought we had a chance to keep it going, when we voted for Trump,” he said. “But I don’t care to listen to him anymore. All of his promises went down the drain.”
To some degree, Trump was defeated by powerful market forces, primarily, low natural gas prices that made coal a less attractive fuel for power plants and the increasing economic viability of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The pandemic made matters worse, slowing coal sales as energy consumption in the United States dipped.
But an examination of the administration’s efforts to support coal in Arizona and elsewhere, including a review of thousands of pages of emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also raises questions about whether the president had any realistic prospect of saving the industry or whether he mostly wanted to be seen as trying.
After all of the efforts the administration made in Trump’s first three years in office, the White House has offered no big new plans this year to keep the industry afloat. The president rarely mentions it on the campaign trail.
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Peter Shulman, a historian at Case Western Reserve University and the author of “Coal and Empire,” about the history of the industry, said he suspected that Trump was focused as much on coal as a convenient symbol as he was the fate of the industry.
“Trump’s pledges to coal miners were rhetorical appeals to hardworking, blue-collar Americans like when Nixon put on a hard hat after a meeting with labor union leaders back in 1970,” Shulman said. “But there was no policy Trump could have implemented that would have changed this situation with coal.”
The White House defended Trump’s record, saying he had reversed policies enacted by the Obama administration that were strangling the industry, and other officials said coal now had a better chance of remaining competitive.
“Our actions have given coal a fair chance in the future,” said Mandy Gunasekara, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of staff.
Since Trump was inaugurated, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15% of the nation’s coal-generated capacity, enough to power about 30 million homes.
That is the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. An additional 73 power plants have announced their intention to close additional coal-burning units this decade, according to a tally by the Sierra Club.
An estimated 20% of the power generated in the United States this year is expected to come from coal, down from 31% in 2017.
In part because of the coronavirus-induced recession, total coal production is expected to drop this year to 511 million tons, down from 775 million tons in 2017. That 34% decline is the largest four-year drop in production since at least 1932.
Far from bringing back jobs, the downturn has translated into 5,300 coal mining jobs, or nearly 10%, being eliminated since Trump took office.
At its peak in 1988, coal generated 57% of all of the electricity in the United States, while only 9% came from renewables, like solar, hydroelectric and wind.
In Arizona, coal can be credited in large part for the rise of Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the United States. The Navajo Generating Station opened in 1974 to create the huge amount of power needed to move 1.5 million acre-feet worth of water annually from the Colorado River down along 336 miles of canals into the once-desertlike reaches of central and southern Arizona, where golf courses and grass-filled yards and parks have since bloomed.
The station, built 15 miles from where the Colorado River enters Grand Canyon National Park, dominates the community of Page. The plant’s 775-foot-tall caramel smokestacks, which are among the largest structures in Arizona, tower above everything else, including the region’s famed sandstone formations.
The mines and the power plant became the workplaces of choice for generations of local families, helping build a middle class in an otherwise poor region.
Ernest J. Whitehorse, 57, started working at the plant as a welder when he was 18. His brother Earl also worked there, as did his son Jerome who took a job in the control room. Attending a high school basketball game early this year, where one of his grandsons was on the court,Whitehorse looked out at the bleachers and counted up the many faces he knew from the plant.
When the mine and power plant closed, tens of millions of dollars' worth of paychecks, local government tax revenues and retail sales disappeared. The plant and mine directly employed about 850 Native Americans from the area’s Navajo and Hopi tribes, paying $100 million a year in wages and benefits. Wages at the mine averaged $117,000 per employee in a community where nearly 40% of the population lives in poverty.
The plant and mine also made payments worth about $50 million a year to the tribes for coal royalties and other benefits, including college scholarships.
“What do we do now?” Whitehorse said, as he looked out at the crowd during the Page Sand Devils basketball game. “What is next? I don’t know the answer for this town.”
Arizona is now an electoral battleground for Trump. But the economic trauma from coal’s rapid collapse extends to Kentucky and other coal-mining states. After the shutdown of coal-fueled power producers like the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky, the Genesis Mine in Centertown, Kentucky, laid off its 250 workers in late February.
Coal’s accelerating decline has produced one of the Trump era’s most counterintuitive outcomes: Air pollution in the United States related to power production has declined rapidly despite the administration’s aggressive rollback of environmental regulations.
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In northwestern Arizona, the closing of the Navajo Generating Station means less haze clouding views across the Grand Canyon.
On a hillside a few minutes from the now-closed Kayenta coal mine, two new solar complexes have recently been constructed by the Navajo tribe.
They are tiny for now, generating only about 2.5% of the power that the Navajo plant was capable of producing. Only two people work at the Navajo solar complex, compared with the roughly 850 who worked at the power plant and coal mine.
Whitehorse, the former plant worker, said the community, and the Navajo tribe at large, would be hurt given Trump’s failure to honor his promise.
“As a community, we will suffer,” he said. “But we will get through it. We will persevere, survive, like our forefathers did.”