Like some ancient relic from the past, Donald Trump has written off the consequences of climate change numerous times and has instead vowed to bring back coal to America. Give America black lung again, I suppose. But while some believe that Trump’s mission would provide many well-needed jobs to lower-income, blue-collar workers in rural America, what they don’t know is that the coal industry is dying and no executive order from the White House can truly “revive” it. Those jobs that Trump promised to revive don’t exist anymore because the coal-mining process has largely become automated by new technology (The New York Times, “Coal Mining Jobs Trump Would Bring Back No Longer Exist,” 03.29.2017).
Already, countless different self-driving machines have taken over the business, such as autonomous long-distance haul trains, automated drilling and tunnel-boring systems, and automated long-wall plough and shearers (IISD, “Mining a Mirage?,” 09.2016). According to a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, fully autonomous equipment “would reduce the workforce of a typical open-cut, iron-ore mine by approximately 30 to 40 percent,” while automation could reduce the number of truck, dozer and drill operators in open pit mines by up to 75 percent (IISD). Why would coal companies bring back workers when they already have machines that can do their jobs better?
“People think of coal mining as some 1890s, colorful, populous frontier activity, but it’s much better to think of it as a high-tech industry with far fewer miners and more engineers and coders. The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes … Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers,” stated Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program (The New York Times). One other reason why the coal-mining industry is on its last legs is because it’s being overtaken and, quite frankly, smothered by a different energy industry–natural gas. Last year, the Energy Information Administration published a report that clearly showed the natural gas industry displacing coal: Over the past 60 years, the annual share of coal has slowly dropped from nearly 60 percent of the total U.S. electricity generation to 33 percent, while natural gas has climbed up from about 10 percent to 32 percent (Forbes, “Don’t Blame Renewable Energy for Dying U.S. Coal Industry,” 03.18.2016).
The explanation is simple: Natural gas is ridiculously cheap and abundant compared to coal. So while natural gas has been enjoying a tremendous boon, countless coal factories have been shut down not because of regulations, but because they simply can’t compete (The Motley Fool, “Not Even Donald Trump Can Save the U.S. Coal Industry,” 10.06.2016). Even if Trump were to succeed in reviving the coal industry, he would cause a decline in natural gas consumption instead since the two are in direct competition with each other. The result? Thousands of natural gas workers without a job. On a side note, environmentalists were eager to point out that renewable energy has been steadily growing as a reliable source of energy. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, renewable energy was “responsible for 64% of all new electrical generating capacity installed [in 2015]” (Forbes). Speaking of renewable energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council has stated that jobs related to clean energy and energy efficiency are projected to increase by as many as 274,000 through 2020 under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (New York Times). That was, of course, before President Trump started to dismantle the Clean Power Plan piece by piece, from easing pollution restrictions to opening federal lands to coal companies for leasing. But even the leaders of the coal industry say that Trump’s efforts won’t be enough to make any real dent in the problem. At most, dismantling all these regulations would restore perhaps 10 percent of the coal companies’ market share (The New York Times, “Policy Shift Helps Coal, but Other Forces May Limit Effect,” 03.28.2017).
Meanwhile, various other countries in the world are actively seeking to replace coal with alternative sources of energy. For instance, China has recently announced its plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable power sources through 2020 (The New York Times, “China Aims to Spend at Least $360 Billion on Renewable Energy by 2020,” 01.05.2017). In fact, China already surpassed Germany in 2015 as the world’s largest solar power market, boasting 43.2 gigawatts of solar capacity compared to Germany’s 38.4 gigawatts and America’s 27.8 gigawatts (MIT Technology Review, “China is on an Epic Solar Power Binge,” 03.22.2016). Not only that, China already has plans to triple that amount by 2020, aiming for a total of 140 gigawatts. To put that into context, the world solar capacity is estimated to be 200 gigawatts in 2015. China is essentially turning into one giant sunflower.
Yes, China, formerly one of America’s biggest customers of coal, is hard at work in getting rid of its reputation as “the world’s largest polluter.” Maybe it’s because this plan would create 13 million new jobs in China’s renewable energy sector? Maybe it’s because China truly believes in the dangers of global warming? Or gee, maybe it’s because the air pollution in China is so deathly toxic that about 4,400 people die every day as a result of China’s infamous smog? (“The Huffington Post, “Air Pollution Causes 4,400 Deaths in China Every Single Day: Study,” 08.14.2015).
Of course, China isn’t alone in abandoning coal. Ambitious plans in renewable energy are currently in motion in countries like Australia, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam (The Guardian, “China cementing global dominance of renewable energy and technology,” 01.06.2017). So not only is coal dying in the U.S., but every other country on the planet knows that it’s dying and is trying to expedite that process even further. With all that being said, I beg of you, Mr. Donald Trump, to just let this prehistoric behemoth die already. There’s no point in trying to save a collapsing coal industry, just like how there’s no point in trying to revive the VHS movie industry–the entire world has moved on, and quite frankly, it’s about time you stop living in the 1870s and start living in 2017.