President Donald Trump hailed the opening Thursday of a new coal mine as proof deregulation is helping bring jobs to the industry, even though plans for the mine's opening were made well before Trump's election.
Corsa Coal Corp. will supply coal used in making steel and is expected to generate up to 100 fulltime jobs. The company said it decided in August to open the Acosta mine 60 miles south of Pittsburgh after a steel industry boom drove up prices for metallurgical coal.
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Under a tent perched hundreds of feet above a freshly dug coal pit, about 200 miners, business leaders, and politicians celebrated amid the surge of enthusiasm for the industry. Mining headgear lay atop red, white, and blue table cloths labeled "Make Coal Great Again."
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said the mine was part of an effort to bring back jobs and industry to the state. Pennsylvania awarded a $3 million grant for the project.
"We have not always capitalized on our standing as one of the world's leaders in these resources, but we're changing that," Wolf said.
Trump has made reversing the decades-long decline in coal mining the central tenet of his environmental policy, blaming federal regulations aimed at curbing planet-warming carbon emissions for job losses in the industry. Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have targeted laws that protected waterways from coal waste and required states to slash carbon emissions from power plants. About a dozen protesters chanted in opposition to the mine at the opening.
Trump noted the impending opening of the mine last week during his speech announcing the nation's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. He said then he had hoped to attend the event; he participated via recorded video message, taking partial credit for the opening.
"One by one, we're eliminating the regulations that threaten your jobs, and that's one of the big reasons you're opening today: Less regulation," Trump said. "We have withdrawn the United States from the horrendous Paris climate accord, something that would have put our country back decades and decades, we would have never allowed ourselves to be great again."
The metallurgical coal being pulled from the new mine is a niche market that makes up only between 5 percent and 10 percent of coal production and operates independently of the market for power-generating coal. Analysts emphasize that the new mine doesn't reflect a long-term revival in the coal industry as a whole, which continues to struggle.
Corsa's chief executive, George Dethlefsen, said Trump has made the entire mining industry more optimistic.
"The war on coal is over," he said. "Easing the regulatory burden, lowering taxes, stimulating infrastructure spending, balancing out the interest of economic growth versus environmental policy — it's very good for coal."
The price of metallurgical coal tripled to over $300 a ton over the past year after China slashed its coal production and the steel industry bounced back from a global downturn. Cyclones disrupted supplies in Australia, the world's biggest exporter of metallurgical coal, pushing prices higher. Though prices have sagged since then, Dethlefsen said he is confident that the mine will be profitable for a while to come.
"The supply chain for metallurgical coal is extremely fragile. Whether it's cyclones in Australia, government policy in China . there's always something that could disrupt the supply chain and prices to shoot up." Dethlefsen said. "If we can keep our costs low, we can compete with any country in the world."
Corsa hopes to open another metallurgical coal mine next year, and a second in 2019.
Power-generating coal mines continue to struggle, facing fierce competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy. Over a dozen coal-fired plants from Nevada to Massachusetts are projected to shut their doors this year, according to a report by the nonprofit Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
"If Trump brings back the coal, it's not going to bring back the jobs," said Jay Apt, an energy policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "Those jobs are gone, automation has seen to that."
Still, for the workers here, the grand opening is allowing them a sigh of relief. Though most are longtime Corsa employees brought in from other facilities, many were jittery after a mine closing in 2014 left hundreds collecting unemployment benefits.
"I won't lie, we doubted if we were going to have jobs, if the company was going to make it," said Matt Owens, a mine safety coordinator who got into coal after his factory employer shut down a decade ago. "But they did."