By: Beth Brown
On March 28th Donald Trump signed an executive order that rescinded the moratorium against mining on federally owned lands and started the process to repeal the Clean Power Plan.[i] The signing took place with Trump surrounded by coal miners, the promise to ‘bring back coal jobs’ was a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign.[ii] The problem with this assertion is that both the coal industry and utilities companies, which are main purchasers of coal, know it is unlikely coal mining jobs will ever rebound to pre-Obama era numbers.[iii]
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the rule known as the Clean Power Plan, to institute carbon emission guidelines for states in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the United States and to move the country toward compliance with the Paris Agreement.[iv] It is the Clean Power Plan that Trump is attacking because he sees it as an overreach of government regulation that has suppressed the American coal industry.[v] The issue is that the utility companies that the Clean Power Plan was targeted at, those who still use coal fired plants, were already beginning to cut back on coal and had started the phasing out process for these plants.[vi] Many utility companies have found that the influx of natural gas has given them a cheaper alternative and that solar power is becoming more of a viable option going forward to power large grids.[vii] In Chile, the government has giving out so many permits for new solar power grid additions that they cannot keep up with the demand.[viii] The price of the solar power per kilowatt is also much lower than any coal powered plants in the country.[ix]
The coal industry is not just being backed away from in the United States, other countries around the world have said they will attempt to cut back on coal powered electricity in an effort to meet the requirements under the Paris Agreement.[x] There is fear that Trump pulling back on the United States’ commitments under the historic climate agreement would cause other large polluters, such as China and India, to pull out of the agreement.[xi] However, China has said they will continue to work toward compliance and India seems willing to slow down carbon emissions.[xii] It seems that other countries are backing up those claims already by purchasing less coal, and the projections are that coal will see more of a steady decline worldwide over the next decade.[xiii] A massive coal mining project in Alaska was recently scrapped after investors could not be found to continue working through the permit process.[xiv] The mine was meant to sell to markets in Korea and China, but the demand has gone down to a degree that the viability of project was no longer there.[xv] This mine project was scrapped just days after Trump signed this executive order promising to bring back coal.[xvi]
The other problem with Trump’s promises to coal miners is that the coal industry itself does not need miners like it used to. The coal industry, like many industries in the United States, has increasingly moved toward automation.[xvii] In Australia, the trucks that move the coal from inside the mines to the surface are self-driving, and more of these trucks expected to make an appearance in the United States soon.[xviii] The drills that extract the coal have also replaced miners.[xix] With higher yields and cheaper overhead costs, the new drills have steadily changed the way that coal is mined around the world.[xx] The industry has changed in demographics as well.[xxi] In 1980, there were 242,000 estimated to be employed in the United States.[xxii] The number had dropped to 100,000 by 2015, although not all of these jobs were specifically miners.[xxiii] The drills can be operated by one person, with that one person being assigned up to three drills. Additionally, the people assigned to this machinery will need increasingly technical skills to run the technology.[xxiv] The coal industry might rebound a little with less regulation, but the idea that more miners will be needed is unlikely, as the automation provides cheaper labor with higher yields.[xxv]
Recently in Louisville Kentucky Trump promised that the coal mining jobs would be coming back to Kentucky soon with his repeal of the Clean Power Plan, but, as discussed above, it is unlikely those jobs will ever return to Kentucky in a meaningful way.[xxvi] The campaign promises seem to be another bait and switch that Trump has perpetrated against his supporters. The repeal of the Clean Power Plan will benefit the coal industry in some ways, but that does not mean more miners will be put back to work. It is not really the climate change policies of President Obama that killed the American miner but instead the move toward automation.[xxvii] The American miner is not needed any longer as they were in the past and Trump needs to stop lying to them. The coal industry executives are abandoning the miners for machines in part because they do not want to help these struggling miners that are suffering from severe health problems due to their years in the mines.[xxviii] If Trump truly cared about the miners that voted for him he would be focusing on helping them move forward from coal and not giving them empty promises that will never come to fruition.
[i] Exec. Order No. 13783, 82 FR 16093 (2017).
[ii] Press Release, Press Office of the White House, Remarks from President Trump at Signing of Executive Order, (March 28, 2017).
[iii] Hiroko Tabuchi, Coal Mining Jobs Trump Would Bring Back No Longer Exist, N.Y. Times, March 29, 2017.
[iv] Clean Power Plan, 40 C.F.R. § 60 (2015).
[v] Press Release, supra note 2.
[vi] Coral Davenport, Coal is On the Way Out at Electric Utilities, No Matter What Trump Says, N.Y. Times, April 5, 2017.
[viii] Joe Romm, Solar Delivers Cheapest Electricity ‘Ever, anywhere, by any Technology’, Think Progress, August 23, 2016, https://thinkprogress.org/solar-delivers-cheapest-electricity-ever-anywhere-by-any-technology-c2ef759ac33f.
[x] Dan Merica, What Trump’s Climate Change Order Accomplishes—and What It Doesn’t, CNN, March 29, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/28/politics/donald-trump-climate-change-executive-order.
[xiii] Greg Walters, No Coal, Vice News, April 3, 2017, https://news.vice.com/story/chuitna-coal-mine-scrapped-in-alaska-after-no-one-would-invest-in-it.
[xvii] Tabuchi, supra note 3.
[xxvi] Jennifer A. Dloughy & Ari Natter, Trump’s Executive Order Won’t Save Coal Mining Jobs, March 27, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-03-27/trump-s-order-won-t-resurrect-jobs-of-miners-key-to-his-campaign.
[xxviii] Interview by Van Jones, CNN, March 8, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNTq6qb8od4.