Mar 21, 2017

The coal industry is sick — and it's terminal

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.

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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.

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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.

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