By Dane Rhys and Timothy Gardner
HEGINS, Pa (Reuters) - Rick Bender, who owns a coal processing plant in Hegins, Pennsylvania, voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016, in part because of his promise to revive the industry from a decade-long decline.
The revival never came. Bender says he is struggling to keep workers employed at the plant in eastern Pennsylvania because coal prices are so low. Still, he plans to vote for Trump again come November. He says the president's Democratic challenger Joe Biden is too focused on fighting climate change.
"We feel if Trump doesn't get elected, the coal business is done," said Bender, 61.
Bender represents a dynamic that could complicate Democratic efforts to win back battleground states like Pennsylvania in the 2020 fight for the White House. Instead of punishing Trump for failing to deliver the coal renaissance he promised, many voters with ties to blue-collar industries continue to support him.
Reuters interviewed 26 coal workers across Pennsylvania and found that all but one plans to back Trump on Nov. 3. While many cited faults with the president, whose incendiary style turns some off, they fear Biden’s clean-energy plan would hasten coal's decline, and that the new green jobs wouldn't come quickly enough to keep their families financially secure. An experienced miner can expect to earn as much as $100,000 annually including overtime, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There really is a very big human cost of just turning the light switch off," on coal, said Jarrod Gieniec, 40, a miner at Silver Creek in eastern Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County.
Recent polls show Biden ahead in Pennsylvania, helped by his strength in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week showed the former vice president with a narrow 3 percentage-point lead in the state, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sept. 29 shows Biden with a 9 percentage-point advantage there among likely voters.
But many rural and blue-collar areas remain devoted to Trump. In Schuylkill County, for example, Republican voter registrations have surged on his watch. Republicans there held a slim 5,600-voter advantage over registered Democrats in 2016, an edge that now exceeds 17,000 voters, according to Pennsylvania voter data.
The fortunes of the coal industry have not fared as well. U.S. production peaked in 2008 at 1.2 billion tons, and it has mostly fallen since as U.S. utilities have embraced cheaper - and cleaner - natural gas. Since 2010, 252 U.S. coal-fired power plants have shut, 66 since Trump's inauguration, according to the Sierra Club environmental group.
U.S. coal production last year sank to 706 million tons, the lowest level since 1978, when a strike crippled output. Industry employment has plummeted more than 40% since 2008 to around 46,500 workers currently.
Still, miners say Trump has earned their loyalty.
The president put a former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump rolled back Obama-era rules to limit power-plant emissions and to protect streams from coal waste, signing a measure on the latter while surrounded by helmeted miners in the White House. And he pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate, in part because he said it hurt U.S. coal jobs.
Pennsylvania, with 20 Electoral College votes, is a critical battleground state that could determine whether Trump wins a second term. He carried the state by less than a percentage point in 2016 and has almost no path to victory if he doesn't prevail there again this year.
Pennsylvania's 5,000 coal miners remain an influential voting bloc. Their political networks are wide, and their views are similar to those of other blue-collar voters, once a stronghold of the Democratic Party, who have pivoted to Trump, said Kristyn Karl, a political scientist at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
She pointed to 2016 polls that predicted - incorrectly - that Democrat Hillary Clinton would prevail in Pennsylvania.
"If nothing else, 2016 made a lot of political scientists and pollsters much more wary of relying so tightly on polls, and aware that small groups can have a big impact,” Karl said.
NO IMMEDIATE ELIMINATION OF COAL
Biden, a Pennsylvania native, is walking a tightrope between the old fossil-fuel interests that support blue-collar jobs and his vision for a $2-trillion transition to clean energy supported by many young voters.
At a campaign event in Pittsburgh last month, he said he would not ban fracking on private lands, a method of oil and gas drilling that has boomed in Pennsylvania. "I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me," Biden said.
His climate proposal calls for supporting coal communities to mitigate job losses. It envisions developing technology to capture emissions from coal-fired plants to keep those facilities operating. "There's nothing in ... the climate plan that would immediately eliminate coal from our power sector," a Biden campaign official told Reuters.
Many fossil-fuel workers remain skeptical.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which had a long history of supporting Democrats, hasn't backed any presidential candidate since it endorsed Barack Obama's first run in 2008.
There has been no industry revival under Trump despite White House slogans such as "Trump Digs Coal," said UMWA spokesman Phil Smith. "Coal is not back, especially in places like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio," Smith said.
Still, he said many rank-and-file members fear that Biden's climate plan "is slated to put them out of work."
'CAN'T STAND' TRUMP, VOTING FOR HIM ANYWAY
Trump visited Pennsylvania five times in September, the most visits of any state. His campaign has focused on increasing his margins from 2016 in rural counties like Schuylkill and improving his results in urban areas and the suburbs.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by more than 724,000 voters, according to state election statistics as of September 28. Still, Republicans have picked up nearly 300,400 new net registered voters there since 2016, compared with a gain of nearly 88,500 for Democrats - a boost Republicans attribute to Trump.
"That's a tangible difference in its direction towards the president," a Trump campaign official said about registrations.
The Biden campaign discounted those Republican gains, saying it expects strong support from newly registered independent voters in Pennsylvania, whose numbers have increased by 130,000 since 2016, according to the state data.
Pennsylvania laborers such as Chip Eichenberg believe Trump's tax cuts and easing of regulations can boost the coal and steel industries again.
Eichenberg, 72, who operates a massive machine to excavate anthracite coal from a strip mine in St. Clair, said he did not vote for Trump in 2016 but plans to this time around. "I didn't think he had enough experience," Eichenberg said. "But that proved to be wrong. He got the economy going."
Miners who spoke to Reuters said they were taken aback when Biden suggested late last year that coal workers could easily transition to computer coding.
"First of all, they're going to be miserable; second of all, they're not going to be able to do it," said Gieniec, the Silver Creek miner. A registered Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016, he said he'll vote for Trump in November even though he "can't stand him."
"I don't like the way (Trump) treats other people," Gieniec said. "But if Biden wins it would end a way of life."
(Reporting by Dane Rhys and Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; writing by Timothy Gardner, editing by Richard Valdmanis and Marla Dickerson)