Coal workers

In mid-February, PBS’s Frontline broadcast an interview with Dakota Hall, a 20-year-old father of two young children who had shelved his plans to go to college when a coal job came his way. But in November 2015, he was let go.

“Everybody had their dreams about being a basketball player, football player,” he said. “I always just wanted to be a coal miner.”

Those dreams are hard to come by these days, and the odds are stacked against Hall and many like him who long have relied on the coal industry for their livelihoods.

Coal, despite what President Trump promises, will continue to be in decline — and it’s not because the federal government is regulating it out of existence. Time magazine summed up the situation back in November, less than a week after Trump won over the nation’s coal-producing states by casting himself as the “last shot for miners.”

“Policymakers on both sides of the aisle say they cannot envision any way for Trump to save the coal industry, whose decline they attribute as much to market forces as Obama-era regulation,” wrote Justin Worland at Time.

More natural gas and renewables = fewer coal jobs

Two big changes in the marketplace have devastated the coal industry: the rise of cheap natural gas and the growth of renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

And it’s happened fast — within a decade. Ten years ago, coal-fired power plants generated half of America’s electricity. Today, they provide about one-third. Natural gas now generates about a third of the nation’s electricity.

Renewables, meanwhile, are quickly staking ground in the nation’s energy landscape. In a recent postingYale Climate Connections reported on the ascendancy of wind power, which today generates about 5 percent of the nation’s electricity — and much more in some states.

The January publication of the “U.S. Energy and Employment” report by the Department of Energy paints a darkening picture for coal. Here are a few highlights:

  • The nation is forecast to add more than 26 gigawatts of utility-scale capacity over 2016. Three sources will make up 93 percent of this added capacity: solar (9.5 GW), natural gas (8 GW), and wind (6.8 GW).
  • Electricity generation from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and September 2016. Over the same period, electricity generation from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by more than 5,000 percent.
  • According to the DOE report: “… between September 2015 and September 2016 alone, distributed solar photovoltaic generation increased 35 percent nationwide, while estimated total solar – both utility-scale and distributed generation – increased by 52 percent across the country.”

A quick reality check: Collectively, coal and natural gas today still account for two-thirds of electricity generation in the U.S. Even in 2040 those two sources are projected to fuel 53 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Still, the trend for coal is a downward one, and it’ll be reflected in jobs. The DOE report states it plainly: “These shifts in electric generation source are mirrored in the sector’s changing employment profile, as the share of natural gas, solar, and wind workers increases, while coal mining and other related employment is declining.”

A few more figures from the report:

  • Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 jobs, up 13 percent from last year’s figure of 759,518. Over the next 12 months, the number of jobs is projected to grow by another seven percent – but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.
  • Meanwhile, oil and gas extraction and support services jobs reached their peak in the fall of 2014 with 541,000; by the second quarter of 2016, that number had fallen to 388,000. Coal mining and extraction jobs reached their peak in 2012 with just under 90,000 jobs; by Q2 of 2016, that number had fallen to 53,000.

These trends in electricity generation and energy jobs have been reported widely for months, especially since President Trump first began donning a miner’s helmet on the campaign trail and cast himself as a savior to the coal industry.

Un-regulating coal production, use

Since inauguration day, the Republican-controlled Congress has begun to throw out regulations that have hurt the coal industry’s bottom line.

In early February, the Senate voted to reverse the “Stream Protection Rule,” a regulation the Obama administration argued would protect the nation’s waterways from debris generated by surface mining, which includes strip mining, open pit mining and mountaintop removal mining — in which the tops of mountains are blasted off to reveal coal seams. The House of Representatives followed with its own vote to scrap the Stream Protection Rule later in February.

Critics of the rule argued that it would make mountaintop removal impossibly expensive, in part because it required coal mining companies to restore mined areas to their original state and environmentally monitor them afterward. But there seems to be some disagreement over this point.

In a story on February 16, the journal Science said Obama’s Stream Protection Rule “had been weakened during the rulemaking process” and did nothing to prevent mining companies from continuing to blast away mountaintops to uncover coal seams and pile debris in stream valleys.

Trump can take other actions, among them undoing Obama’s ban on new leasing of coal mines on public lands. According to a story in the New York Times, however, the regulation affects coal mines only in Wyoming and Montana, where jobs already have been declining due to automation and a falling demand for coal.

And then there’s Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants. But even if Trump dismantles the plan, it’s unlikely that would do much for the industry in the long run, experts say.

“Scrapping the Clean Power Plan may slow the decline of coal, but it’s not going to bring coal back,” Jason Bordoff, a Columbia University professor and former Obama energy adviser, told CNN in January.

Meanwhile, coal plants continue to close. Over the next four years, utilities across the nation plan to close 40 coal-fired power plants, E&E News reported on Feb. 21, citing federal figures.

As Dakota Hall and other coal industry refugees continue to look for work, it might be worth their considering the natural gas fields of Wyoming and Montana, or the solar and wind farms sprouting up across the American Southwest.

More to read

Trump is making promises on coal mining jobs he can’t possibly keep,” Vox, Feb. 21, 2017

Commentary: Trump’s job promises won’t help struggling coal counties,” Reuters, Feb. 10, 2017

Trump promised to ‘open the mines’ – Here’s why that is unlikely,” NBC News, Feb. 12, 2017

U.S. wind, solar power tout rural jobs as Trump pushes coal,” Bloomberg, Jan. 31, 2017

For U.S. jobs creation, renewables are a better bet than coal,” IEEE Spectrum, Jan. 26, 2017

U.S. solar industry passes oil, coal and gas for job creation,” Computerworld, Jan. 24, 2017

Britain’s coal output falls by half to record low,” New York Times, Feb. 23, 2017

President Trump takes aim at the environment,” New York Times Editorial Board, Feb. 23, 2017

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...