Just hours after being sworn into the White House, President Donald Trump’s transition team made their energy objectives clear. Coal’s coming back like it’s 1888.
The Trump newly minted Trump administration wasted no time redirecting the course of former President Obama’s policies, which advocated solar power, wind power and various other sustainable energy sources. Trump, in a new White House webpage called An America First Energy Policy Plan, asserts the elimination of climate regulations and to boost oil and gas production; moreover, “The Trump Administration is committed to clean coal technology and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”
Trump seems to think this is a good deal for the country? But is it really?
Point: Reviving coal guarantees jobs to millions of out-of-work miners, ensures lower energy costs, maximizes the use of American resources, and leads to energy security.
The single most important benefit of coal is that it’s an “easy” solution to the energy problem. What we mean by that is coal’s cheap to produce, simple to extract, ship and burn. The technology’s already in place—and has been in place for decades. The miners, for the most part, are already trained. There are also an array of dependable sellers like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. Plus, as of right now, 33 percent of American energy comes from coal, and, of coal producing countries, America has the largest reserve with about 26 percent of the world’s coal.
As if the stability of a fully invested coal weren’t enough, America has a fuck-ton of the stuff. Last year, the country mined about 900 million tons—almost all of it used to provide electricity for American households—and that’s only a minuscule fraction of the 257 billion tons in recoverable reserves.
Needless to say, in the minds of Trump and many Republicans, if we have it, why shouldn’t we use it?
In President Trump’s case, he hopes to use this energy to redevelop the country’s infrastructure. This not only has Republicans excited, but coal executives—particularly makers of metallurgical coal, a variety used by steel makers instead of powerplants—who see this investment as a potential renaissance for the struggling field.
Corsa Coal Corp, a metallurgical-coal producer in Pennsylvania, for instance, can’t wait for Trump’s policies to begin. “The thing that has got me the most excited is the potential for infrastructure spending,” said George Dethlefsen, Corsa’s chief executive. “All those things are very energy- and steel-intensive, and that’s good for our business.”
The company plans to boost its metallurgical-coal production by 70 percent this year to around 1.2 million short tons.
Similarly, miners in West Virginia have a similar hope—something miners in the region haven’t had in over a decade. “This is the best news that Appalachia as a whole has had in about 10 years,” said Jason Bostic, a vice president at the West Virginia Coal Association, in an interview with Reuters.
Miners aren’t the only ones excited. President Trump seems to think this environmental deregulation and return to coal can create millions of jobs. Considering the industry currently employs around 80 thousand Americans, that’d be nothing short of miraculous. And maybe, if the Trump administration plays their cards—and coal—correctly, a minor miracle could be in the works.
Counterpoint: Coal is dead, and has been dying for decades, and any attempt to revive it is futile.
Trump says coal miners have been hurting far too long, but, based on a history of scrip payments, child laborers and probably the most depressing soundtrack of any profession, it seems coal miners have always hurt, and Trump’s promise to bring mining back is more than likely a big, fat lie.
Coal ain’t coming back, and it’s not because of environmental regulations or Obama’s “War on Coal,” as many Republicans call it, or any excuse the administration may give. Coal’s not coming back largely because of market forces—yes, the same market forces Republicans so often praise. It’s no coincidence the ascendance of shale oil has occurred simultaneously with the decline of coal. The fracking boom has depressed natural gas prices, making natural gas-fired power plants the cheaper option in many formerly mining communities. Furthermore, fracking’s the cleaner, more available solution to coal, emitting half the CO2 as coal, far fewer dangerous pollutants, and worker’s aren’t subjected to deathly conditions like black lung. And furthermore, furthermore, in recent years, renewable energy sources like wind and solar have overtaken the role of coal in many places throughout the country.
Coal’s also not coming back because we’ve slowly stopped mining it. Here’s the big picture: Last year’s 900 million tons was the lowest amount since 1986 and nearly 25 percent less than the coal mined in ten years ago, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Back in 2008, coal supplied 50 percent of the country’s power. By 2015, that number had fallen to 33 percent. Since the country has become less reliant on coal, miners have been losing their jobs at record rates. A study out of the journal “Energy Policy” revealed that, from 2008 to 2012, 50,000 coal-related jobs closed. That’s out of an industry with only has 80,000 miners left. Oh, and let’s also add in another issue, the issue of states like California, New York and Oregon proactively turning away from coal and investing only in clean, renewable energy.
So how the Hell does Trump plan on revitalizing an industry that’s not only nearly flatlining but also competing with other energy initiatives—fracking and nuclear—that he greatly supports? Well, by eliminating regulations. Of course, eliminating regulations now doesn’t factor in the costs it would take to clean up the environment after coal continues destroying. To curb global warming, scientists say 90 percent of U.S. coal should stay buried. If it is burned, that’ll just be future costs not only in lives but also in whatever additional damage global warming wreaks across the country.
Eliminating regulations does nothing to solve the problem that coal’s been in decline since the end of the 20th century, and, experts agree that investing in renewables is actually the way of the future. Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent, and, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, solar may be cheaper than coal by 2025.
So for how much longer will coal even be relevant? And should we bother investing in irrelevancy?
Image: Jan Truter CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.