Kentucky Blog reader Bonnie Lee wrote: “Why don’t you write about President Trump’s promise to get our coal miners back to work?”
OK, Bonnie Lee, I will. That was a compelling campaign line, but as a promise? Well, let’s look more closely at the reality of such a promise.
- Economic Reality: Compared to other fuels that generate electricity, coal simply isn’t competitive. Not with natural gas cheaper, cleaner, plentiful, highly efficient, and US produced. As the cost of coal power goes up and up, it’s competitors – not only natural gas, but also renewables such as wind and solar – continue to go down. More and more, utility companies are including these carbon-free sources into their portfolios and dropping coal plants. In 2015, wind and solar power made up two-thirds of all new electricity-generation in our country. In some areas, they are cheap enough to compete with natural gas.
- Geology: In central Appalachia, the easily accessible coal seams are gone. Which means coal operators there must search out ever harder-to-reach reserves. Which means coal from there is more expensive and the mines less productive. No one blames the miners, Bonnie Lee. It’s a reality of geology.
- Climate change: You told me you don’t believe in climate change. Well, you are in the minority, Bonnie Lee. The world certainly does. Which means even if we insist on mining our coal, those other nations won’t be buying it. Not long ago, Canada, the sixth largest market for U.S. coal, announced it would phase out its own coal plants by 2030 so it can meet its commitment under the Paris climate agreement.
- People are demanding clean energy: If large U.S. corporations want to see their businesses grow, they are must find zero- and low-carbon electricity. In order to power their data centers by “green electrons,” companies such as Amazon, Google, and Apple are investing in their own renewable resources. Others – such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Walmart – have varying goals of getting all or most of their electricity from renewable sources. Energy providers will have to if they want to do business with these large companies.
These things are dimming the future of U.S. coal, Bonnie Lee. It isn’t over-regulation by the EPA. It is true that the EPA has spoken out loud and clear against mountaintop removal coal mining, though. And with good reason, given that it involves blasting the tops off mountains and dumping huge amounts of dirt and mining debris into rivers and streams. And, yes, it’s true that the EPA wants to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Good for them for looking out for us.
Consider this, Bonnie: In 2014, the U.S. coal industry employed 76,572 workers, fewer workers than Arby’s (80,000), the Dollar Store (105,000), or J.C. Penney (114,000). Even if there were as many coal workers as there were 25 years ago (131,000), the coal industry would still employ fewer people than retail shoe sales (224,000)!
Instead of looking back and wishing, Bonnie, let’s join hands and encourage our government to spend the time, money, and energy scheduled for a lost coal industry fight to instead train mine workers for 21st century jobs.
“Nowhere are prejudices more mistaken for truth, passion for reason, and invectives for documentation than in politics.”
John Mason Brown