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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

8 mins ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.

Trump threatens to veto Defense spending bill over social media shield

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Tuesday a threat to veto a must-pass end-of-year $740 billion bill defense-spending authorization bill unless Congress repeals a federal law that protects social media sites from legal liability.

Why it matters: Trump's attempt to get Congress to end the tech industry protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the latest escalation in his war on tech giants over what he and some other Republicans perceive as bias against conservatives.

The walls close in on Trump

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

With Bill Barr's "Et tu, Brute!" interview with AP, President Trump is watching the walls close in on his claims of fraud, hoaxes and conspiracies.

Why it matters: Trump and his legal team continue to claim election fraud. But the Republican governors of Arizona and Georgia have certified their elections, a loyalist like Barr has weighed in, and lower-ranking officials have taken potshots.

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