Coal Jobs and the Power of a False Premise

Employment in America’s coal industry collapsed not five years ago, but fifty years ago. Since that time, President Nixon’s establishment of the EPA, the steady market share gains of natural gas in the US power generation mix, and the shift to machine-based, open pit coal extraction in the West have helped to ensure that growth in the US coal job market has been nil. The long-term, historical picture is captured well in a US Department of Labor MHSA series that starts in the year 1900:

There have been fluctuations, however. China’s choice of coal singlehandedly resurrected the entire global coal industry from its chronic, moribund state—for about 15 years, between 1995 and 2010. That blip in time revived, very briefly, US coal mining employment by a scant 17,000 jobs from a low in 2003 of 70,000 to a high of 87,000 in 2011. This shorter time frame is best seen starting in 1985, from the US Department of Labor’s CES series:

Depending on which data series you use, 2016 coal mining employment was running at 81,000 jobs (MHSA) or 50,000 (BLS/CES). But it doesn’t really matter. On the longer timeline, US coal employment has literally been decimated, falling from a high of over 800,000 jobs in the 1920’s,** to today.

Now comes the Trump Administration promising a second resurrection of America’s coal industry; not by capturing natural demand, but by changing policy. Here, like so many claims from the new administration, the premise is false. Markets and technology, not policy, are what ails the US coal industry because the US coal industry like the US oil industry is a feature of a global market. And in today’s global market, solar, wind, and natural gas are trouncing coal for new, marginal additions in power generation in every important domain. Especially China.

Sadly, the Trump administration wants to sell their false premise to the small, remaining group of American workers connected to the coal industry. The humane, and rational policy would be to design the best ever job-retraining program for these workers, and to roll it out on their behalf. Such a program could be further supported by new infrastructure spending not only in the few states where coal extraction still takes place, but in those states where coal combustion, and coal fired power plants (many 40-50 years old), are retiring.

Instead, using coal miners as props, the administration has enacted a series of social signaling legislation, like the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule. This chimera has been covered well by Brad Plumer at Vox, and also by Jenna Johnson and Dave Weigel at The Washington Post. But the most basic point is not hard to understand: you can save maybe several hundred jobs, but, you cannot save 70,000 coal jobs through the adjustment of small scale regulation, as claimed by the coal industry, when only 50-80,000 jobs remain.

Where are all new the jobs today? In wind, solar, and natural gas. To illuminate the problem for coal further, see the relentless market share gains that natural gas has made, over the past 20 years, in US power generation. In a country that’s been generating roughly 4000 TWh per year of electricity, without much growth for a decade, natural gas has charged onto the scene and reached 1,400 TWh:

Coal remains a cheap and powerful energy source globally but, unfortunately for coal miners everywhere, extraction and combustion costs, construction timelines to erect new coal infrastructure, and the associated supply chain have made new coal increasingly uneconomic. Finally, path dependency—which at one time worked in coal’s favor—now works against it. Many coal plants in the US and the West came up for retirement just as natural gas, wind, and solar were getting cheap. Alas, coal has missed out on its market share opportunity for decades to come. Another reason to do the humane thing: offering robust job re-training to workers connected to America’s (long) dying coal industry.

–Gregor Macdonald

Get the free, bi-monthly newsletter.

**Correction: data points in the first chart between 1930 and 1960 were corrected per the linked data set, to fix a data transposition error. The resulting chart does not change the story, but does indeed remove the spike/crash in the pre-corrected version, and offers a smoother portrait of the decline in coal jobs between 1930 and 1960.