Despite the administration’s best efforts, the coal industry continues its downward trajectory. Liam Glen writes on the causes and consequences of coal’s decline.
Donald Trump came to power on a promise to bring back the coal industry. To achieve this, his administration has embarked on a massive campaign of deregulation, more than willing to sacrifice health and safety to minimize the cost of extraction.
But all of these efforts seem to have been for naught. As reported by the conservative Daily Caller, coal companies continue to shut down. Overzealous environmental activists and government regulators may be part of the cause, but coal’s greatest weakness has been its inability to keep up with a rival fossil fuel, natural gas.
Even with all of Trump’s efforts to revive it, coal’s decline was inevitable. In the wake of this, the question should be on how to handle the aftermath.
An Overdue Death
While Trump was promising to save the coal industry during the 2016 election season, commentators from all corners could see that nothing would come of it.
One takedown came from, of all places, the right-wing and anti-environmentalist Foundation for Economic Education. It detailed how natural gas and renewable energy are getting increasingly cheap, making it harder for coal to compete, while much of the work that does exist is becoming automated, so even if the industry is propped up, it will not provide many jobs.
It is hard to be very sorry about this phenomenon. Not only is coal a major contributor to climate change, but it is also a public health disaster carries massive risks to miners and communities.
Those Left Behind
No major shift comes without disruption. The same goes for the energy transition. When understanding the decline of coal, there are a couple of key facts that one must consider.
The coal industry itself is not as large as is commonly assumed. As pointed out by Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post in 2017, its tens of thousands of employees are dwarfed by other sectors. Individual chains like Arby’s, Dollar General, or J.C. Penny each employee more people than the entire coal industry.
Based on the way the media covers West Virginia, one might easily think that every man, woman, and child in the state spends their entire life in the mines. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that mining and logging employs less than 3 percent of the state’s civilian workforce.
However, as Ingraham points out, coal jobs are also highly localized. If every Arby’s in the United States were to shut its doors, the effects would be spread out. The former employees would have relatively little trouble finding another job.
Meanwhile, as the demand for coal falls, entire communities face ruin. Workers are often unable to transition from high-paying careers in mining to other lines of work.
A Just Transition
Recognizing this fact is nothing new. Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 proclamation that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” was part of a longer town hall, where she followed by saying “and we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.”
The key is to do this effectively. Groups like the United Mine Workers of America warn that typical programs such as job training are often ineffective, as the skills that workers pick up are rarely enough to help them find work afterwards. Instead, more investments and incentives are needed to create well-paying jobs in coal country.
Like countless industries before it, coal is on its way out. The only question is whether we will do anything to replace it, or let the economic consequences take their toll.