Thursday, February 2, 2017

Even if Coal Generated 100 Percent of Electricity, That Wouldn't Create Coal Jobs

Coal is a rotting corpse pretending to be a zombie, but the stench of decomposition won't go away.  Coal is dead.  Dead, dead, dead.  And the repugs who keep promising to restore coal jobs are not just lying, they are laughing at the desperate unemployed in the former coal fields.

Stephen Rose at the Washington Monthly:
The table below shows how output has increased while employment has decreased because of rising productivity from 1920 to 2015. The huge jump in productivity between 1980 and 2000 is due to the rise of surface strip mining as an alternative to underground drilling. Instead of creating mining shafts several hundred and to a few thousand feet underground and then using trolleys to bring the coal to the surface, strip mining uses bulldozers to flatten mountains and extract the coal from the debris.


Patterns in American coal consumption have also changed dramatically over the years, which make a reversal in demand unlikely. First, in the beginning of this period, many houses used coal for heating; but today, according to the Department of Energy, virtually all coal is used to produce electricity in big power plants. Second, we do very little international trade in coal—we import about 1-2 percent of our needs and export about 10 percent of production. Third, the advent of fracking has made coal less competitive compared to national gas.
Coal production reached its peak in 2007 at 1.2 million tons. Since 2007, there has been a steady decline to 900 thousand short tons in 2015. The main causes of this decline are the increased availability of low-cost natural gas from fracking and the increased use of the renewable resources of solar and wind energy.Of course, these trends were consciously assisted as part of an environmental policy to reduce coal consumption because of its high emission levels of greenhouse gases. While the new technologies to produce “clean coal” with lower emissions may take some of the environmental cost out of coal production, the upside of coal production is quite limited because of cheap natural gas and the general movement to a more energy-efficient economy.
So, ‘bringing back coal jobs’ is a typical Trump initiative, much like the Carrier deal that saved 800 jobs, in that it is big on atmospherics and small on actual employment. Currently, coal employment is five one-hundredths of one percent of all employment. It is hard to see how a new Trump plan could do anything more than raise this total to six one-hundredths of one percent of employment. It is certainly possible that there will be no gain in employment because the increased use of strip mining due to higher coal demand could return productivity levels to their 2000 level.
The better promise Trump should have made to coal country is to offer employment retraining and other economic development initiatives for rural workers. In general, the decline of coal employment was driven by productivity gains that are good for the economy as a whole and that can’t and shouldn’t be reversed. Trump has made the same promise about increasing manufacturing employment, which has lost 5 million jobs from the 17 million that existed in 2000. This is a more fertile area to make change, but still, many of the same forces are at work. Trump wants to Make America Great Again, but his haphazard ambitions to increase working class employment are hardly a recipe for success.

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