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John Oliver Explains Why Coal Jobs Just Aren’t Coming Back

John Oliver isn’t the first person to point that America has something like an addictive relationship with fossil fuels — but he might be the funniest.

On this Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver took on one of the toughest topics in US politics today: coal, or as he called it, “cocaine for Thomas the Tank Engine.”

Oliver’s specific angle into the debate over the coal industry wasn’t about the environmental effects of the pollutant, but about the promises made by politicians like Donald Trump that coal mining jobs can be brought back to the US and that the long, slow death of the coal industry could be reversed.

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“He barely gets what mining is,” Oliver said of the president. “He might think it’s just running up to things he wants and yelling ‘mine.’ That’s possible.”

Oliver showed a clip of Trump on the campaign trail in 2016, talking to coal miners in West Virginia. Trump donned a hard hat and mimicked the movement of shoveling coal.

“We’ll start winning winning winning,” Trump told the crowd. “For those miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off.”

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Oliver pointed out that those promises might be hard to keep. Jobs in the industry have been steadily declining for decades as gas prices have dropped, cleaner energies have become more affordable, and automation has reduced the need for actual coal miners to extract coal.

“If coal jobs are so important to [Trump], let’s talk about them and begin with a number. It’s smaller than you might think,” Oliver said.

He showed the number of people employed by the coal industry in the US: 76,000

He then showed, for comparison, the number of people employed by struggling clothing retailer JC Penney: 114,000.

“The question is what does help someone in that situation? Donald Trump insists he’s helping people by reducing regulations on coal companies,” Oliver said. “But too often, people conflate coal, coal miners, and coal companies and imply that when you help one you help them all. But they are not all in the same boat.”

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There aren’t easy solutions, Oliver said. There are small programs around the country trying to retrain former coal miners in jobs of the future, including coding, and those programs need government support more than the dying mining industry does.  

“The point here is trump needs to stop lying to coal miners, stop telling them that they’re jobs are coming back when they’re not, that coal is clean when it isn’t, and that this industry isn’t in the middle of a difficult, painful, albeit necessary transition,” he said.

“If Trump really cares about miners,” Oliver said, “he would be putting a plan in place for their futures as mining continues its long term decline, but he isn’t doing that.”