Senate Majority Leader from Kentucky: Coal Jobs May Not Come Back

Coal, solar, wind power, clean energy, renewables, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Leon Kaye, Clean Power Plan, Obama Administration
Donald Trump says he can bring the coal industry back

Once a reliable blue state in presidential elections, West Virginia flipped to the Republicans in 2000 and has since become a reliable red state. And last week, West Virginians flocked to Donald Trump, voting for him by over 42 percent– a margin only exceeded in Wyoming.

Much of that margin can be explained by Hillary Clinton’s poorly articulated response to a March town hall question about how she was going to help unemployed coal miners find work. While one can argue that her remarks were twisted out of context, coal workers heard enough, and the damage was done. Appalachia, along with much of the Rust Belt, voted for Trump out of angst over the loss of decent paying jobs. Trump, in turn, has promised that he will stop what he said is the Obama Administration’s “War on Coal.”

But as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated this week, coal companies, including those in his home state of Kentucky, should not feel too ready to cash in after Trump takes office on January 20.

At an event in Louisville last Friday, McConnell brought up what he described as the “assault” launched against coal while Obama has been in office, with one caveat. “Whether that brings business back is hard to tell because [coal] is a private sector activity,” told the Louisville audience.

The truth, however, is that the coal industry’s demise was years in the making. Trump and his allies have pointed to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan as the bogeyman causing the coal industry’s collapse. Coal plants are not necessarily banned under this directive, but new power plants using this fuel must do so with technologies such as carbon capture and storage to minimize their carbon emissions. Several years ago the coal industry ran “clean coal ads” saying this very technology was why coal should be central to the U.S. energy mix, but investors and regulators figured out such projects were far too pricey. The result is that now coal is not competitive enough to compete with other technologies. Companies such as Peabody Energy Corp. said they had their own ideas of what comprised “clean coal,” but regulators ruled those advertisements were misleading.

Trump has always had an uncomfortable relationship with renewables, has his statements on both these technologies and related polices have been all over the map. His allies, however, have long presented the current White House’s energy policies, and their incentives to boost clean energy technologies, as a working-class job killer. Depending on the source cited, however, renewables are providing at best only 11 to 13 percent of America’s energy and electricity needs. And almost half of the renewables portion is electricity generated from hydropower.

Renewables, despite all the hype and enthusiasm, are still a small portion of this country’s energy portfolio. Of course, if one wants to dig the knife deeper into coal’s corpse and add more insult to injury, it does not take much of a web search to see sites like Bloomberg crow about how solar and wind power are becoming cheaper, more scalable and as cost effective as fossil fuels.

But the stubborn fact is that natural gas has slayed coal. Whatever one thinks of the fracking boom here in the U.S., it has not only given utilities a bridge fuel until solar and wind technologies become more integral to the national grid, but it is currently just as cheap or even priced lower than coal. As a result, natural gas has become king across much of the country as utilities, municipalities and states often have their own clean air standards irrespective of what the federal government may or may not do.

Trump’s ascendancy was based largely on bringing back jobs to an economy with a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, but as is the case with manufacturing, such promises will be hard to keep. The private sector has its own idea of what a 21st century economy will look like, and there is not much a President Trump can do. And he is especially hobbled on making this promise a reality as he has offered no concrete proposals, unlike those of his opponent’s tepid, but detailed, plan.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. It’s awfully close to the election to start breaking campaign promises, but those Appalachian coal mining jobs are never coming back. Not only that, but Trump’s proposed policies are more likely to make the problem worse than better. Senator McConnell got tasked with the unenviable job of starting the let-down.
    First, as the article points out, natural gas is the real enemy of coal, and Trump’s pro-fracking policies more likely to increase supply and depress prices of natural gas than not. That will be hard on coal.
    Not mentioned is that the other enemy of Appalachian coal is Western Power River Basin coal, the cheapest coal in the world to mine, and cleaner than Eastern coal to boot. Trump’s plan to open more federal land to coal mining would bring more cheap Western coal to the market, further depressing Appalachian coal.
    And then there’s Trump’s opposition to the Clean Power Plan, darling of the Eastern utilities who supported it because it “forced” them to buy expensive scrubbers so they could run their coal plants on expensive Eastern coal. The CPP was a windfall to them. Absent it, they’ll buy cheaper Western coal and hang the Appalachian miners out to dry.
    And last, there’s wind and solar, which take a small but rapidly growing share of the generation business, and worse, are forcing a change from coal fired baseload power to natural gas fired load-following power.
    The recent ITC extension has both a five year sunset, AND strong bipartisan support. Add that to the unfortunate fact that wind and solar employ a lot more people than coal does, and you have to think that Trump will spend his political capital elsewhere, where he can win.
    Bottom line, the Eastern coal miners are screwed, and they got sold a bill of goods by the President-elect. Same as it ever was.

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