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David Goldman / AP

President Trump has made a revitalization of the coal industry one of his key campaign promises, and it arguably helped to push him over the top in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. He's pledged an all-out assault on Obama-era environmental regulations, and kicked things off last month with the the repeal of a rule that backers said would save more than 75,000 coal jobs. But like much of Trump's rhetoric surrounding the manufacturing industry, talk of a resurgence of coal jobs ignores economic realities. The energy market has moved past coal, and those jobs simply aren't coming back.

Expand chart
Data: Energy Information Administration; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

1. Coal is past the point of no return

Coal has long had one advantage over other energy sources: it's cheap. But the huge growth in the extraction of shale gas via fracking over the past decade has sent natural gas production soaring and prices tumbling. And advancements in renewable energy technology during that same time span have reduced prices in that industry as well, even allowing utility-scale solar to bring its prices in line with natural gas. Money talks: natural gas overtook coal for a few months in 2016 as the United States' primary source for electricity production.

The EIA's Annual Energy Outlook has coal rebounding for the next few years as record-low natural gas prices start to tick back up, but it predicts that natural gas will become the United States' energy source of choice by the early 2020s. And renewables are pegged to overtake coal before 2030 rolls around.

The market has already made its choice — especially as many utilities have decided to shutter coal-fired power plants — cementing coal's death spiral.

Expand chart
Data: Energy Information Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

2. Robots are more of a threat than regulation

Even if President Trump magically resurrected the coal industry, that doesn't mean that jobs would come back. Automation is a much more immediate threat than overregulation.

In 2008, the coal industry hit its greatest production ever right around the time that employment numbers bottomed out. That's largely due to a geographic shift in production. Trump has made it a point to highlight the plight of miners across Appalachia, but the industry has undergone a clear and steady shift away from underground mining in that region to surface mining in the West. Surface mining — ripe for automation as it's much less labor-intensive — now encompasses 66% of production compared to 34% for underground mining. Per Brookings, Wyoming's surface mines employ far fewer people than West Virginia but produce four times as much coal. Any coal revival would mean putting autonomous trucks to work in Wyoming — rather than miners in West Virginia.

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
Updated 3 mins ago - World

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Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wang Zhao - Pool/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that a "new cold war" could turn hot, and must be avoided, in a speech on Monday at World Economic Forum’s virtual “Davos Agenda” conference.

Why it matters: Xi didn't refer directly to U.S.-China tensions, but the subtext was clear. These were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, whose administration has already concurred with Donald Trump's determination that China is committing "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims, and issued a warning about China's aggression toward Taiwan.

Updated 55 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Dominion files $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani

Photo: Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani on Monday seeking $1.3 billion in damages for his "demonstrably false” allegations about the company's voting machines.

Why it matters: Giuliani led former President Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election and spread the baseless conspiracy theory that Dominion's voting machines flipped votes from Trump to Joe Biden.

Mike Lindell moves the goalposts on a run for Minnesota governor

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The will-he-or-won't-he speculation surrounding a possible gubernatorial run by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is destined to continue at least a bit longer.

What he's saying: Lindell told Axios that his focus is currently on proving his (baseless) claims of election fraud. He won't make a decision until that fight is resolved.

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