War on Coal – Already Lost

on August 14, 2014 at 3:00 PM

Obama's New Proposed Regulations On Coal Energy Production Met With Ire Through Kentucky's Coal Country

War on Coal – Already Lost

A convenient political sound bite, and not much more

The coal lobby and its political supporters accuse President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of waging war on coal. They claim that putting restrictions on burning coal will bring America’s economy to a screeching halt, untold number of jobs will be lost, and millions of Americans will suffer while sitting in the dark and freezing in the cold.

Not everyone believes all or any of it. France, which used to have a sizeable coal mining and coal-fired generation sector, phased out the former long ago, and French people do not seem to be suffering or missing the unsightly coal mines or polluting coal-fired plants. Nor is the UK nostalgic about its coal mines – and many Britons would rather see fewer coal-fired plants if they had their wish.

Paul Krugman, who writes a regular column in the New York Times, picked on the topic recently on a blog posted 7 June 2014. He wrote:

“I’m trying to pull together some thoughts about interests and ideology in the fight over climate policies, and found myself wondering what exactly is at stake in the supposed “war on coal”. And the answer is, surprisingly little — at least as far as jobs are concerned. Here’s total employment in coal mining (graph on page 4, the earlier numbers are from Historical Statistics of the US, Millennial Edition; the later from the FRED database “There used to be a lot of coal miners, but not anymore — strip mines and machinery in general have allowed us to produce more coal with very few miners. Basically, it’s a job that was destroyed by technology long ago, with only a relative handful of workers — 0.06% of the US work force — still engaged in mining.”

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Source: 7 June blog by Paul Krugman, NYT

“So what is this fight about? There’s capital invested in coal and coal-related stuff, hiding behind the pretense of caring about the workers. And there’s also ideology, of which more soon. But the war on coal already happened, it had nothing to do with liberals and environmentalists, and coal lost.”

In other words, all the talk about war on coal is about roughly 100,000 jobs, at most. The lights will most likely not go out, US unemployment figures will hardly feel the pinch, and we will all be breathing slightly cleaner air.

Politics of coal

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Moreover, an increasing share of US mined coal is now destined for international markets since domestic coal consumption has been on gradual decline, which will continue to decline, mostly due to lower cost natural gas and the growing abundance of renewables mandated by state level renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

War on coal may be a useful sound bite, and a vote getter in some parts of America (map above), but the reality is that it is a marginal industry with a dismal health and safety record and a gloomy future. Existing and future EPA regulations play a role, as do Obama’s war on coal, but other factors are primarily responsible for the gradual phase out of US coal.

Published Originally in EEnergy Informer The International Energy Newsletter August 2014 Issue.