Any day now, the president is expected to sign one or more executive orders aimed at rolling back environmental safeguards that improve our public health through protecting clean air and clean water. It will likely include the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to rescind the Clean Power Plan, the first ever limits on global warming emissions (or carbon emissions) from existing power plants. That’s in addition to signing a bill revoking the stream protection rule and an executive order reviewing the Waters of the United States rule.
Much of the rhetoric around these actions has been focused on supporting fossil fuels—and especially about bringing back lost coal jobs. But how realistic is this promise to the nation’s coal miners?
In a word, unrealistic
Simply put, it’s hard to imagine that rolling back those critical protections would do much to boost coal production, and it certainly won’t bring back lost coal mining jobs. Coal industry executives know this. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, made exactly this point only two days after the election, backing away from years of saying that President Obama’s supposed “war on coal” was killing jobs.
The truth is that the coal industry has withered away in a perfect storm in recent years. Market forces, primarily, have made natural gas and renewables generally the best option for our energy needs. The US electricity system has shifted from around 53% coal-fired (avg. 1980-2005) to 34% in 2015. This trend is largely the result of cheap and abundant natural gas (thanks to the shale gas revolution).
While coal production is expected to rise in short term, it won’t change the fundamental trend, particularly in Central Appalachia, where the highest quality and easiest-to-mine seams are mostly gone. One has to appreciate the irony that by doubling down on natural gas production (through pipeline development and relaxed environmental rules), the administration will help accelerate the demise of coal.
Sure, environmental safeguards have been one of the pressures facing the coal industry. But they haven’t been driving the fundamental shifts in our electricity system. Simply put, coal is increasingly uneconomic compared to cleaner sources of energy.
Another subtlety is the impact of the slowing Chinese economy, which has changed from 10 percent growth per year to around 7 percent last year. That shift represents a decline in industrial activity—and a commensurate decrease in demand for metallurgical (met) coal, which is used to make steel. Major US coal producers bet big on the met coal market at its peak around 2011; slumping Chinese demand erased their balance sheets in a matter of years, leading to a spate of high profile bankruptcies.
It’s also important to remember the long term trends at play. In the late 1940s and early 1950s coal mining employment in West Virginia stood at around 120,000. In 2015, the number was 15,540 (see Table 18 here). The bulk of that shift has nothing to do with environmental rules. Instead, it represents a dramatic shift toward mechanization of Appalachian mining operations (the advent of longwall mining) and a shift toward large, low-cost surface mining operations in the West.
And yet, outrageous claims continue to be made about the return of coal jobs. For example, opponents of the stream protection rule claim that repealing it has saved 77,000 coal jobs—a figure that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true.
It’s not as if there was a “war on the horse and buggy” a hundred years ago. The truth is that something better came along—the automobile. We are in the midst of a similar transition today; the technology has advanced and the costs have fallen so much that we can now envision a future where we power a large share of our energy needs from non-polluting renewable sources like wind and solar.
What’s really needed now is to focus on providing support to coal communities in the midst of this ongoing transition away from coal.
Congress is considering real options to support coal miners and coal communities. One key priority is the critically-needed fix to the pension and retiree health care funds of United Mine Workers of America. Another example is the RECLAIM Act, introduced last session, which would release $1 billion of existing funds over 5 years to support the cleanup of abandoned mine lands across the country, prioritizing projects with the potential to spur local economic development. The bill garners support among a wide range of environmental groups and labor unions.
Congress and the president have an opportunity to do much more to support worker retraining and economic development in coal communities. These valuable programs are dispersed in multiple federal agencies, and we will be watching closely to see if the new budget proposed by the president will reflect the critical needs for these programs at agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and the Employment and Training Administration, to name only a few.
This isn’t just a US phenomenon. In early 2016, China announced plans to reduce overcapacity in the coal and steel sectors, laying off 1.3 million coal miners. Beijing planned to allocate over $15 billion over two years to support relocate affected workers.
Look, I get it. I come from a third generation coal mining family in West Virginia. I understand that many folks back home not only make their living in the mines, but see their livelihoods as a source of great pride, as well they should. Families like mine have helped keep the lights on in this country for generations.
But it is dangerous to imply that removing science-based environmental protections will bring back jobs. It further divides us and emphasizes the false and tired narrative that we must choose between jobs and the environment.
Instead, we have to figure out how to ensure that everyone—including coal miners—can prosper in the transition to a clean energy economy.