US President Donald Trump has claimed that environmental and climate policy were to blame for the decline of U.S. coal – or in his words: “Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones — how stupid is that?”. After 1.5 years in office he analyzed, in summer 2018, that “the coal industry is back”.

At the core, Trump is very wrong with two things, though a little less with the one and so much more with the other: The attribution of the decline in coal jobs to U.S. environmental and climate regulation neglects fundamental changes in the U.S. energy landscape and generation fleet. But an even more daring statement is the claim to bring back coal jobs to Appalachian coal regions.

There is a broad consensus that the drop in U.S. natural gas prices is the main driver behind this decline in domestic coal demand in the U.S., where a more or less stable 90% of U.S. coal production is consumed. The so-called “shale gas revolution” should not be news to anybody even slightly interested in energy. Natural gas has outcompeted coal as a cheap fuel source for electricity generation in many regions of the U.S, in particular Appalachian coal and East coast coal-fired power generation. The ten years from 2007 to 2017 saw electricity generation from natural gas increasing from 22% to 32% of the total.

What is more, in the same time span, the share of electricity generation from renewables (without hydropower) increased from 2.5% to 10%. This was largely due to a staggering decrease of average levelized cost of electricity from (unsubsidized) wind and solar PV by 67% and 86%, respectively, between 2009 and 2017. At the same time, U.S. final electricity demand has stayed pretty much flat since 2007. So, the growth in natural gas and renewables displaced much of the traditional coal capacity.

The US coal power plant fleet is special because of its astonishing high share of small and very old units. For example, as of July 2019, the average age of operating coal-fired units was 43 years and the average capacity of the operating units was only 338 MW. More precisely, almost 85% of the coal-fired units were built before 1990 and more than 60% are older than 40 years – 33% even older than 50 years!

Being wrong about the fundamentals of the energy market is one thing, but raising unrealistic hopes with desperate people, is something else. But this is what Trump is doing when he promises to bring back coal jobs to coal regions.

In fact, coal workers have a much more powerful enemy than environmental regulation. It goes by the name of automation. Coal mining employment has been on the decline for decades: from a peak of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to 92,000 in 2011. Yet, the current rate of decline is exceptional: dropping to 52,000 in only 5 years to 2016. With a share of 50% of the drop, the Appalachian region was especially affected by the job losses in coal mining. During the same period, coal mine productivity in the Appalachian region increased by on average 13%. Yet, Appalachian productivity remains lower than that of the Powder River Basin (PRB) producers in Wyoming and Montana, at only about 10% of their productivity levels. This is an important fact when thinking about revoking environmental regulation: Many of Trump’s “quick-fixes” like lifting the moratorium on lease of federal land for coal mining and shrinking the size of a national monuments affects U.S. Western coal. It thereby actually accelerates the process of moving coal jobs to the West, where coal production is much less job intensive. Thus, it does not create coal jobs in Appalachia but further reduces the total number of coal jobs by shifting to less labor-intensive production regions.

To be fair, one has to admit that the Trump administration is trying to financially support coal-fired power generators suffering from the competition with renewables and natural gas. With obscure regulatory proposals, Trump has been trying to secure additional revenues. Subsidizing coal power plants as grid reserve capacity was one of them. So far, the regulatory bodies in charge, most prominently FERC, were successful in rebuffing such ideas.

At the same time, the Trump administration is giving with both hands: reduced environmental standards and requirements have also brought down costs for natural gas, coal’s most fierce competitor.

Observing the creativity of the Trump administration in finding ways to support coal, we used our model of the international coal market to test whether some further far-reaching policies could turn the tide for U.S. coal. We investigated two “promising” avenues: strong political and financial support for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and the opening of West Coast coal export ports allowing for mass export towards coal demand areas in Asia.

The analysis in our paper for Climate Policy reveals that there is no scenario which allows the Eastern coal basins (Appalachia and Interior) – which Trump had in mind when claiming to ‘make coal great again’ – to return to their pre-2015 production levels. West Coast export infrastructure would support PRB coal, though. Assuming current labour productivity levels, which differ by an order of magnitude between the PRB and Appalachian basins, a shift in production towards the PRB implies a further reduction in jobs in the coal sector. Moreover, it is questionable if betting on exports can be a “sustainable” long-term strategy for the U.S. coal sector. Given the Paris Agreement and increasing climate policy efforts worldwide, global coal demand will inevitably drop. Any coal-specific infrastructure is then at risk of being stranded. The ongoing bankruptcy wave in the U.S. coal sector shows us that financial investors have already well understood this risk. CCS is no game-changer for U.S. coal either. Retrofitting the old U.S. coal power fleet with costly CCS does not appear very likely. Moreover, so far, the Trump administration is showing little interest in increasing support for CCS.

No doubt, the loss of well-paid jobs has significant implications for both the individuals and the regions that have built their societal model around fossil fuel extraction. But there is a good chance that new jobs can be found: if all goes well these will be in renewable energies, but more likely they will be in the oil and gas industry. The real victims here are local communities, the environment and the climate which continue to be blighted by fossil fuel extraction.

Read the paper here.

Roman Mendelevitch is a Senior Researcher at Öko-Institut and a guest researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research and the Resource Economics Group at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Copyright: Jens Weibezahn)

Christian Hauenstein is a Research Associate at the Workgroup for Economic and Infrastructure Policy at Technische Universität Berlin, and a guest researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research. (Copyright: CoalExit)

Franziska Holz leads the Section Resource and Environmental Markets at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) and is an International Adjunct Professor in the NTNU Energy Transition Initiative at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (Copyright: Thomas Lobenwein)