The Builder from Queens

January 31, 2018

President Trump, a builder from Queens, N.Y., announced his ambition to rebuild the country. “America is a nation of builders,” he reminded Congress last night, a fact largely forgotten among pundits who write and think but seldom build anything.

Coal mining is all about building. The three great industrial revolutions – first England’s, then America’s and finally China’s – would have been inconceivable without coal. It fueled the power and made the steel that built new civilizations on three continents and lifted millions from abject poverty.

The president rightfully boasted of his efforts to keep the country’s 254 billion tons of recoverable coal – the world’s largest supply – available to serve the country and the world. His regulatory reset not only revitalized a torpid economy but freed a coal industry to compete in a challenging market.

Critics will quarrel with the president’s hyperbole. But in the same year his administration “stopped the war” on coal, the industry opened seven new mines, boosted production by 6 percent, and saw its exports soar by 67 percent. Technologies that exist today can transform coal as much as coal transformed the world.

Infrastructure renewal will enhance these contributions, doing for the coal industry what it will do for most all industries. Improving existing export terminals and building new ones will allow our miners to serve global demand that sent metallurgical coal prices up 88 percent last year. Rebuilding the locks and dams on inland waterways will transport coal to markets more efficiently and at lower cost. More good-paying jobs will follow.

This will be a stillborn ambition, however, so long as a government permit process serves obstructionists instead of builders. If federal agencies can arbitrarily veto an existing mine permit, halt indefinitely the rebuild of a power plant, suspend the NEPA process when they fear the result – or prolong permit decisions to discourage construction – Americans will continue to envy the shinier world outside their borders.

When Palermo’s airport is better than Newark’s, and the rail line linking Paris to Nice mocks the rail line linking Washington to New York, it’s time to help the builders among us.