Donald Trump promised throughout his presidential campaign that he would single-handedly halt the decline of the nation’s coal industry and bring back lost jobs for coal miners.
“We’re going to put our miners back to work,” he said at numerous rallies. “The miners go back to work.”
Trump said he could reverse this downward trend by reversing the environmental regulations on the use of coal that were proposed during Barack Obama’s administration.
The most visible sign of the president’s intentions was a news conference held last week in Hazard, Ky., in the heart of the nation’s coal mining region. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the department was rejecting Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would have required utilities to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through the burning of coal by their power plants.
“The war on coal is over,” said EPA Director Scott Pruitt, a global warming denier.
The “war on coal” as described by Trump and Pruitt may indeed be over, but the coal industry is still in a steep decline, with job numbers sinking to all-time lows. Even supporters of coal acknowledge that those old mining jobs probably aren’t coming back.
Where the coal industry employed about 250,000 people in the 1970s, the number of coal jobs today is estimated at less than 70,000.
By contrast, the retail chain CostCo employs 143,000 people in its U.S. stores, more than twice the number who work in coal mines — and CostCo employees don’t have to worry about getting black lung disease.
Robert Murray is the founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal company in the country. He is a Trump supporter and likes what the president is doing to roll back Obama’s clean power regulations, but he conceded that there is not likely to be a big upsurge in new coal mining jobs.
“I suggested that he (Trump) temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray. “He can’t bring them (coal mining jobs) back.”
Some of the president’s top policy people have the same view.
“Coal doesn’t even make that much sense anymore,” Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, told reporters recently.
Cohn was referring to the factor that more than anything else has killed coal: the low price of natural gas made possible by the widespread practice of fracking. Natural gas is a little cleaner and cheaper to burn than coal, so electric utilities have increasingly been choosing gas over coal.
We can see that happening in Georgia with the state’s largest utility, the Georgia Power Co. At one time, Georgia Power generated about 70 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. Today, the portion of power generation from coal is about 30 percent.
Over the last seven years, Georgia Power has shut down 15 of its coal-fired generation facilities: five units at Plant Yates, four units at Plant Branch, three units at Plant Kraft, two units at Plant McDonough and one unit at Plant Mitchell.
Additionally, Georgia Power has converted two coal-fired power generation units at Plant Yates from coal to natural gas.
When I asked a company spokesman if Georgia Power planned to reopen any of those decommissioned facilities now that the Trump administration has declared the “war on coal” is over, this was his terse answer: “No.”
Georgia Power is just one of many utilities making this decision. Since 2010, nearly half of the country’s 523 coal-fired plants have been closed or are being phased out.
This is happening even in West Virginia, one of the nation’s biggest coal-producing states. West Virginia’s leading utility, Appalachian Power, has closed three coal-fired plants in recent years and converted two others to natural gas.
Other factors in the declining use of coal are the increasing deployment of solar- and wind-powered generation facilities. As the price of alternative energy continues to come down, it is expected to eat into coal’s share even more. That would mean even fewer jobs for coal miners.
The real killer of the coal industry hasn’t been onerous federal regulations; it has been free market forces. Utilities know there are cheaper sources of power than coal, and they are choosing those cheaper sources, regardless of what the president might say.