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Warren’s Coal Miner Strategy

Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaking at Roosevelt High School, Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder.

It is far too early in the presidential campaign to start seriously handicapping the results we’ll see on Nov. 3, 2020, yet it still seems fair to ask whether Sen. Elizabeth Warren has adopted Hillary Clinton’s coal miner strategy.

During her presidential campaign, Clinton famously told a town hall in Columbus, Ohio, that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” A few months later, Clinton was confronted by a West Virginia coal miner who asked how she could promise to put him and his peers out of work, and “then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend.”

Clinton never had a good answer for that West Virginia coal miner. She never had much chance of carrying West Virginia anyway. But that comment – together with her equally notorious remark about how “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” – helped her lose a stretch of winnable northern industrial states from the Delaware River to the Mississippi. Incumbent Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois was the only fence post left standing in her party’s crumbled “Blue Wall.”

Warren is no more a friend of the coal industry than was Clinton. Her campaign’s pledge of $3 trillion to move the United States to “100% clean energy” by 2035 would do exactly what Clinton promised to do. But at least Warren has had a sympathetic attitude toward the miners, for whom she has advocated federal protection of health and pension benefits. Her plan also includes proposals to help miners and other fossil fuel industry workers transition to jobs in the renewable energy sector.

But Warren has promised to halt oil and gas development on federal land, which is a blow to the energy industry that possession of the Oval Office would empower her to deliver. And she has pledged to support an outright nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the long-used and much-improved technical know-how that has turned the United States into a leading world energy power, freed us from a two-generation-long dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf and other unstable regions, greatly reduced incentives for drilling in sensitive environments like the deep ocean and the Arctic – and, yes, reduced U.S. carbon emissions by substituting abundant natural gas for coal and oil.

A plan like Warren’s would hit hard in Pennsylvania, which has benefitted greatly from renewed mineral extraction in its underdeveloped Appalachian hills. It would hurt the industrial cities of Ohio that supply much of the infrastructure. It would be a financial knife aimed at U.S. car companies, which rely on profits from large pickup trucks and utility vehicles to pay for government-mandated but money-losing electric and high-mileage vehicles, as well as for the development of future autonomous transport. The plan sends a signal to any energy and transportation-centered business that times would be hard under a Warren administration. Do you expect to see battery-powered container ships carrying global trade on the high seas in your lifetime? I don’t expect to see them in mine.

Most of the public is too busy with other matters, including the still-developing primary race for the Democratic presidential nomination, to have focused on the intricacies of Warren’s plans, which are considerably more numerous and detailed than those of her rivals. A lot of the political oxygen is also consumed by the debate over “Medicare for All” and how Warren would, or would not, propose to pay for it.

But The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the energy industry, at least, is already paying attention. At some point the voters will too.

It’s not that Warren’s carbon proposals are politically impractical, whatever one thinks of their economic and environmental merits. It’s that they will make it much harder for her to repair that flattened Blue Wall in the Rust Belt. Forget about flipping Texas; even holding Democratic-leaning New Mexico, a major beneficiary of fracking, would get much tougher.

If she loses in those places, Warren will have to make offsetting gains in populous Southern states like Florida and Georgia to put together 270 electoral votes. And for a socialist-in-all-but-name, or something close to it, that is going to be a heavy lift.

It will take a lot of political horsepower to carry that load. If we take Warren at her word, that power is going to have to come from 100% renewable sources. We may see in due course where she intends to get it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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