Appreciating the optimism that now permeates the coal industry requires a little history. After all, context matters.
Rewind to 2011, the year the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) reported a highwater mark of 143,940 coal miners. Just five years later, by the close of 2016, there were just 81,875 of those miners left employed. More than 62,000 miners had lost their jobs and all signs pointed to further pain.
Nearly half of the coal-mining workforce was gone. Despite evidence to the contrary, the coal-mining industry had not ill-advisedly invaded Russia.
The phrase “war on coal” is sometimes scoffed at by critics of the industry but the loss of nearly half of a workforce in five years justifies the perception of an assault. This bloodletting wasn’t just the product of an unforgiving marketplace and the boom, bust cycles of the commodity business. The industry was the victim of a regulatory onslaught geared at dismantling its marketplace while making it more difficult and costly to produce its product. The foot of the federal government was placed squarely on the industry’s throat.
Like adding fuel to the fire, years of government largesse to the renewable industry (totaling in the tens of billions of dollars), ever-expanding renewable portfolio standards and the emergence of cheap shale gas created a perfect storm to sink a ship already taking on water. By 2016, by nearly every measure, the industry was in an existential crisis. The threat of an election of a presidential candidate who boasted of putting more coal miners and coal companies out of business seemed like a looming knockout punch. And then, the blow never arrived.
It is only through this lens – this context – that we can begin to appreciate the change that has come since the current administration took office. Not only has the bleeding stopped, but the industry is hiring again. In 2017, the industry added more than 1,000 jobs. Quarterly data from MHSA shows that additions are continuing through the first half of this year.
These modest additions have been the butt of ribbing from the administration’s critics. USA Today titled a story in April, “President Trump has yet to save the struggling coal industry, numbers show.” A scholar from Columbia University opined that “I don’t think Trump has had any effect on coal so far.”
These are curious conclusions because the data, and the industry, say just the opposite. If stopping cold an accelerating trend of tens of thousands of job losses isn’t having an effect, what is?
Challenges surely remain. Well-operating coal plants continue to prematurely retire. Electricity markets are undermining themselves and the nation’s fuel diversity. Markets remain so skewed by renewable mandates and subsidies that they are destroying their own foundation – reliable, fuel-secure baseload power – to replace it with non-dispatchable, less reliable alternatives. Coal’s uphill fight remains, but the government-orchestrated ambush is over.
The coal industry has been given a chance. Rising overseas demand and an uptick in exports are helping. Coal exports for the first half of this year are up more than 30 percent. The coal industry – and the tens of thousands of men and women it supports – are optimistic. And they know the source for much of that optimism. The regulatory reset hasn’t just halted the assault. It has also provided the critical assurance that government understands that environmental stewardship and industry can coexist.
A recent piece in The Atlantic, “Hope and Change in an Alabama Coal Mine,” captured the optimism and the appreciation:
“Randy Johnson looked on as his new 220-ton excavator carved up the ground, clearing the field of rocks to help unearth the coal underneath. Four weeks earlier, the central Alabama mine’s 22 employees had gathered to christen the $2.7 million purchase, painting “TRUMP” in white block letters along the excavator’s side…. those letters gleamed under the punishing southern sun, the machine’s every move—every swivel at the base, every curl of the claw—an implicit tribute to the 45th president.”
- On August 15, 2018