A Realistic Debate About Coal

March 22, 2017

The unseemly haste to bury coal is taking a new tact. From Axios to The Washington Post, this week’s conventional wisdom about coal is: Trump can’t put king coal back on its throne. This is how coal’s critics set up the quintessential straw man, then triumphantly knock it down. It’s a staple of reporting: choose the weakest guy to beat up to avoid the fight you can’t win.

The issue isn’t whether Trump can help coal regain its glory any more than we can expect Jeff Bezos to restore the Post’s Watergate stature. Even coal miners who know best were reluctant to take the president’s campaign pledge literally. No one in the industry expects coal to reclaim its industrial-era stature in the near future, let alone rehire every miner idled over the past decade.

The issue is whether Trump can help coal survive in the aftermath of an eight-year regulatory onslaught and keep more capacity, more production and more jobs from becoming its victims. Can he rescue good jobs and energy diversity from irresponsible policies advanced by ideologues? This is the realistic debate worth having.

In this debate, however, the arguments of coal’s critics aren’t as effective. They say automation in today’s coal industry means fewer man hours are required to mine each ton of coal, thus limiting the employment potential for even a revived coal industry. Brilliant. For what industry is this not true? By 2015, output per man hour for all U.S. manufacturing more than doubled from 1970.

Was the new Honda or Ford you drive today built with the same number of hourly workers that built your father’s car? The U.S. auto industry in 2016 employed less than half the workers it did in 1970. And just because fewer workers are now required to assemble each car, would that justify government policies designed to kill the U.S. auto industry? By the way, where are all those Washington Post printers? Do on-line reporters know what typesetters are?

Any industry that hasn’t used technology to improve productivity is an industry that would not exist today. The same technological advances that reduce the number of miners per ton of coal also reduce accidents and fatalities. Last year was the safest in the history of U.S. mining – one of several record-breaking safety years in the past decade.

By holding President Trump to a rhetorical campaign promise, his critics more easily ignore the good he can do. Without regulations weighing heavily on coal utilization (e.g. Mercury and Air Toxics rule, Clean Power Plan) and production (e.g. the stream rule, waters of the U.S., retroactive vetoes of mine permits), a more efficient and sustainable industry is likely to emerge from competition with natural gas and subsidized renewable fuels.

Obviously, regulations like these inflicted great harm on the industry. If they didn’t, the Obama administration would not have imposed them.