Earlier this week, an executive order was signed which pulled back numerous restrictions on fossil fuel extraction previously set in place by the Clean Power Plan. The current administration is claiming an end to the “War on Coal” and promising to bring back jobs for unemployed coal miners. The problem with this proclamation – and larger line of thinking – is that it completely ignores multiple factors pushing against a revival of the coal industry.
“Can the coal industry be brought back? The answer is, I’ve suggested to President Trump that he temper his expectations,” said Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch. Even Murray, one of the coal industry’s strongest proponents, understands that coal faces several serious challenges – namely increasing automation in mining, cheaper natural gas, and a booming renewable energy field.
According to an International Institute for Sustainable Development report, automation is likely to replace 40-80 percent of workers in a mine, with newer mines and those with many years of life left being most susceptible to this change. Machines make a dangerous activity like mining safer and more efficient, qualities that business owners love.
The coal industry is also staring down increased competition from natural gas. While we at MWA do not support fracking for natural gas – we believe firmly that a shift to renewable forms of energy is urgently needed – the truth is, natural gas is cheaper to acquire and cleaner to burn compared to coal — again, two things that business leaders adore.
And most importantly, the coal industry faces a challenge from the burgeoning renewable energy production sector. According to the Seattle Times, citing Energy Department analysis from January, “coal mining now accounts for fewer than 75,000 U.S. jobs. By contrast, renewable energy — including wind, solar and biofuels — now accounts for more than 650,000 U.S. jobs.”
No matter what politicians try to do, it’s clear that true job growth simply is not happening in the fossil fuel industry, especially coal mining. It’s happening where we need it most – in renewables.