Despite Trump's Claims, Coal Isn't Coming Back

Industry experts argue that basic economics are stacked against coal, in favor of renewables.

Among the more effusive exclamations of praise following the victory of President-Elect Donald J. Trump on Nov. 9 came from representatives and supporters of the country's beleaguered coal industry.

"This is a great day for America," Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the largest underground coal mining company in the United States, said in a statement. "This is also a great day for coal miners and their families." In a Facebook post, the industry group Friends of Coal declared that the election proved, "The heartland and coal country still matter in this great nation."

That enthusiasm is, on its surface, understandable. The industry has been fighting against what it claims is a "war on coal," and targeted Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton after she stated that, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." Fact checkers pointed out that the context in which she made that comment was that unemployment was rising in the industry and efforts needed to be made to find them alternative employment; but fact checkers pointed out a lot of things during the election campaign to no obvious effect. And besides, that statement stood in sharp contrast to Trump's simple promise to "put our miners back to work."

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Certainly, the coal industry in the United States is in decline. From a peak of 250,000, it now employs only around 50,000 workers. Approximately 50,000 coal-related jobs were lost between 2008 and 2012 alone. Ninety-four coal plants closed in 2015, and 41 in 2016. Having provided roughly half the country's electricity eight years ago, it now accounts for just 30 percent - and a mere 16 percent of the country's total energy consumption.

Some in the industry - and Trump - place the blame squarely on President Obama and his environmental regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan, which, if implemented, would set emissions standards that would require many states to phase out coal-fired power plants.

But experts say that the industry's problems extend far deeper than that, and that promises to restore coal jobs by repealing them are doomed to failure. Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, wrote that, "Despite the bold pledge, Trump is about as likely to bring back the heyday of coal mining employment as to cajole Mexico to fund a border wall. Neither is going to happen, no matter who is elected president. The factors pushing down Appalachian coal mining employment extend far beyond the powers of a campaign pledge. Employment began to decline in the 1980s, as production shifted to Western states like Wyoming where thick seams of coal could be accessed with far fewer workers than needed in Appalachian mines. By the time President Obama took office, job counts had fallen by more than half nationally, even as coal production stood near record highs."

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Writing for ClimateWire, Evan Lehman quoted John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, as saying that,"It's very, very, very unlikely [Trump] could do something to get coal back to where it was seven years ago." In that same article, Chiza Vitta, an analyst with the credit rating service Standard & Poor's, observed that "We do not view regulations as the primary factor for the decline."

One reason for the decline in coal, reported the New York Times, particularly in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, was the "collapse of the American steel industry in the late twentieth century [which] reduced demand for the metallurgical coal that is mined most prominently in Appalachia." The other type of coal - thermal coal - that is used to fire power plants is indeed a victim of clean-air concerns, but is also under assault from, and being out-competed by, fracking.

The hydraulic fracturing boom that began a decade ago has flooded the market with cheap natural gas; as a result, that fuel has now overtaken coal and in 2015 provided 29 percent of the total share of U.S. energy consumption. That's why Gerry Anderson, the CEO of DTE Energy, Michigan's largest electric utility told MLive's Emily Lawler that his company is still planning to retire eight of its nine coal-fired power plants by 2030. "All of those retirements are going to happen regardless of what Trump may or may not do with the Clean Power Plan," he said. The reason, simply, is cost: In Michigan, a new coal plant costs $133 per megawatt hour, while a natural gas plant costs half that. "I don't know anybody in the country who would build another coal plant," Anderson said.

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Furthermore, cheaper alternatives are available which don't require additional measures to comply with clean air standards, as they are inherently clean. Wind power contracts now cost about $74.52 per megawatt hour - and granted, that price is somewhat lowered by federal tax credits, but those credits are quite popular even among Republicans. Part of the reason for that is that they're helping job growth in renewable energy: There are approximately 80,000 people employed in wind-related jobs in the United States, and 200,000 in jobs related to the solar industry, with both experiencing approximately 20 percent growth per year.

Indeed, according to a study in the journal Energy Economics, further development in those industries, rather than attempting to rediscover lost jobs in coal, may be a more productive way forward for struggling mining communities. The study argued that coal workers could be retrained for jobs in the solar industry with relatively little investment, and that subsequent jobs might actually pay better.

Trump's promise to restore coal jobs proved popular. And the enthusiasm of struggling communities for his message is entirely understandable. But for climate, pollution, and economic reasons - as well as the long-term viability of those communities themselves - looking to the future, rather than the past, is likely a more productive way forward.

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