President Donald Trump promises the American people coal. More coal production, more coal jobs, more “clean coal.” Unfortunately for the coal miners of America, the odds are against Trump in keeping these promises.
Starting off with coal production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has reported that coal production has been decreasing in the three major coal mining regions: Western, Appalachian and Interior. In fact, 2016 had the lowest production rate of coal in American history since 1978. It is false equivocation, however, to attribute the decline in coal production to increased regulations as Trump repeatedly does. Opponents of coal regulations only look at the Western mining region, noting that the coal mining region was producing strong rates of coal until 2008. Since 2008, the Western region has plummeted from producing 600 million short tons of coal to 400 million short tons in 2016.
Reviewing the other two major coal mining regions reveals that this trend does not carry. For example, the Appalachian mining region has been in steady decrease since as early as 2000. As for the Interior mining region, coal production has remained relatively stagnant (before and after 2008). It is then false to accuse Obama-era regulations on the coal industry for minimizing coal production when the effects are not evenly applied.
What is most likely affecting production and job growth is the marketplace. With the mechanization of the industry, more and more miners are being displaced by machinery — similar to other professions that involve manual labor. The work is done quickly, efficiently and at lower costs than the traditional hiring of blue collar workers to complete the job. Nearly 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing have been due to “productivity growth” i.e. mechanization. The same can be applied to the blue collar miners that find the mining industry is industrializing with the times.
The popularity of natural gas in the market is also a clear contributor. Natural gas consumption has been increasing over the decades. In 2015, natural gas surpassed coal as the lead source of electricity at 33 percent. While the price of natural gas fluctuates intermittently, the choice for natural gas is becoming increasingly popular due to its cleaner carbon footprint, industry growth and increased energy capacity.
Coal is one of the only energy industries collapsing on itself. Compared between 2015 and 2016, all energy industries (renewables, natural gas, petroleum, nuclear) had positive energy consumption rates except for coal. Coal companies are calling bankruptcy all over the nation. A report by SNL Financial states that between 2012 and 2015, 42 major coal companies declared bankruptcy. Peabody Energy Corp., the nation’s largest private sector coal producer, was over $8 million in debt and forced into bankruptcy in 2016. It is now returning in the coming months from bankruptcy with the promise of coal stock rising under Trump’s administration.
Lifting regulations and restrictions on the coal industry will not solve this downward spiral for the industry because the issues it faces are not regulatory — they are marketplace.
Trump’s final card is “clean coal” or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Politicians, including Obama and Trump, have touted the importance of implementing clean coal technology such as CCS. CCS is the pollution mitigation system that drastically cuts carbon pollution by either condensing the carbon byproducts and selling it for industrial uses or burying the excess carbon underground. There are two significant drawbacks to this process. First, CCS is exceedingly expensive. The Obama administration had hoped to reinvigorate the coal industry with clean coal solutions. A prime example of this failing is the Kemper clean coal plant in Mississippi. The clean coal plant today is still not operational despite borrowing tax dollars and federal aid totaling approximately 7 billion dollars (with an initial budget of $2.4 billion) and lagging several years behind schedule. Second, CCS decreases coal efficacy. It is projected that the efficiency of coal plants after implementing clean coal technology would decrease by as much as 10 percent. Considering the decreasing production rates of coal, decreases in efficiency can be detrimental to the coal industry as well.
The most Trump can hope his regulation slashing will do for the coal industry is abate the inevitable. Instead of following Obama in propping an expensive clean coal technology with billions of tax dollars, Trump should focus his budgetary plans on alternative fuel sources like renewables and natural gas. Both energy industries are gaining momentum and recognition in the marketplace. As a business president, I am astonished he still has not recognized this. Coal is dying out. It is time to invest in bigger and better stock.