Fuse-wire at a surface coal mine in Schuylkill county, PA

Coal Jobs Are Not Coming Back

Why a Healthy Coal Industry Does Not Equal More Coal Jobs

Paul Schaefer, an 84-year-old former employee of the St. Nicholas Cogeneration Plant, drives down a north-east Pennsylvania road winding around a surface coal mine. He pulls up to a driveway, revealing a pit, easily 20 stories deep. The site seems desolate. „They used to have a bar up here, but they tore it down a while ago,“ Schaefer says.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made it a central promise to bring back the country’s coal jobs. ”For those miners, get ready, because you are gonna be working your asses off. […] We are going to save the coal industry,“ said Trump during a rally in Charleston in May 2016. To do that, he planned to roll back environmental protection rules that were meant to slow down climate change, and protect local nature. By January 2018, one year into his presidency, 33 rules had been overturned. What Trump did not realize was that his efforts to save coal jobs did not only come too late but that the rules he wanted to overturn were hardly the cause for the decline in the first place.

Paul and Betty-Jane Schaeffer in front of their mobile home in Schuylkill county, PA

The area that has felt the effects of the changing industry the strongest is the Coal Region, a mining area in north-east Pennsylvania, known for its rich anthracite-coal deposits. “Everyone around here used to work in coal but that was 50 years ago,” said Schaefer. The anthracite coal region was one of the oldest coal mining areas, employing most of its workers underground.

Enabled by technical advancements, companies were gradually able to extract more coal and generate more energy using less workers. Burner efficiency increased, and underground mining operations that require a relatively big workforce made way to surface-mining, which not only allows the use of more productive mining methods like strip mining, but also offers more opportunities for automation. In Wyoming, where a majority of coal is mined on the surface, workers produce on average 10 times the amount of coal that their traditionally underground Appalachian colleagues extract. In the early 70’s, the share of coal produced by surface mining first overtook the share produced by underground mining. Today, surface mining amounts for more than 70% of the produce coal, nationally.

“In strip mining, the ratio is 12 cubic feet to one ton of coal,” said T K Pen, former executive of Pen Coal, describing a method of surface mining. “That is an economical ratio to mine, otherwise it is too expensive and the reason why it is too expensive is that the environmental law in the United States is very strict.”

In 1970, the then recently founded Environmental Protection Agency, passed the Clean Air Act, legislation that included the regulation of the emissions of coal fired power plants. While the Clean Air Act certainly facilitated the move away from coal by allowing other energy sources to be more competitive, the general effect on the coal industry appeared to be negligible. Contrary to expectations, the coal output kept increasing.

Graphed with data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration

By now, an important distinction has to be made. Surprisingly, saving the coal industry has little to do with saving coal jobs. Despite of what the overbearing decline in coal related jobs might suggest, the industry itself has been remarkably healthy. While jobs have been on a steady decline; from 800.000 in 1920, down to 80.000 in 2008, the US’s coal output hit it’s all time high in the same year.

Since 1949, the productivity of individual miners increased from 0.7 tons per work hour to 5.2 tons. In order to provide every existing worker with employment, the demand for coal would have had to adapt and therefore increase by over seven percent. In reality, it just about doubled, putting 400,000 workers out of business. In a recent report, the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that technological advancements would allow a further workforce reduction in mining by 30–40 percent.

Graphed with data from lazard.com

Additionally, starting in 2008, the coal industry has been exposed to increasing pressure by cheap natural gas and other renewable energy sources. Technological advances in natural gas drilling, wind as well as solar energy-generation are facilitating strong competition in the energy market. An analysis published by International Financial Advisory firm Lazard, shows that the price of coal energy equaled that of gas, solar, and wind in 2012. After that, the prices of renewable energy dropped considerably. In 2017, the mean levelized cost of electricity from natural gas, solar, and wind ranged from $45 to $60 per megawatt hour, while that from coal put supplieres back $102.

US electricity generation by natural gas has been increasing slow and steady since the 90s, and the prices of renewable energy are predicted to continue falling. Many of the country’s coal fired power plants were built in the 50’s and are already far outrunning their designed life. It will become increasingly uneconomic to keep them running and with the strong competition of alternative energy sources it is hardly feasible to build new plants.

This January, president Trump issued a 30 percent tariff on imported solar cells, resulting in a short term price increase of solar energy. While this might give coal its very last push, it will also be an incentive to invest in the local solar industry, creating new jobs and preparing the US for a post-coal energy economy.

Coal ash piling up around a waste-coal burning plant

The biggest enemy of coal jobs in the country has been automation and economics, the striving for efficiency and cheap energy. The coal industry as a considerable employer is vanishing and it is visible all across the coal region. Houses are left crumbling, town centres are littered with empty storefronts and peeling paint. While Trump might have garnered the vote of a handful, promising the resurgence of coal is a promise impossible to keep. The EPA together with the free market, decided that the time of coal is soon to be over. Paul Schaefer, working in a power plant designed to burn culm, coal waste, now seems like a metaphor, burning the remnants of a once great industry. Operating since the 80s, the plant is ageing, and like a majority of the others, is going to turn off its burners soon.