(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 1923 there were 862,536 coal miners in the U.S., about 2% of the country’s total workforce. These days, their ranks are much thinner. As the Washington Post uncharitably pointed out in 2017, more people now work at Arby’s than in the U.S. coal mining industry.
This did not stop Donald Trump from making the revival of coal mining a major plank of his presidential campaign, and a focus of his efforts after he took office. And sure enough, the number of coal mining jobs did stop falling in 2017.
There are indications, though, that the decline is about to resume. Before the 2000s, job losses in coal mining were mainly about better mining equipment and the rise of less-labor-intensive above-ground mining operations. For the past decade, though, the main driver has been falling U.S. coal consumption. Natural gas pushed coal aside to become the main fuel used in electricity generation and renewables gained ground, even as demand for electricity remained flat.
There was a brief uptick in consumption in 2016 and early 2017 as rising natural gas prices drove some utilities to switch temporarily from gas back to coal, but after that the consumption slide resumed. Lately it has even accelerated: In July, according to numbers released last week by the Energy Information Administration, coal consumption was 11.6% lower than in July 2018. Yet coal mining employment has held up.
Why the disparity? Well, there was a revival in U.S. coal exports after a global economic slowdown in 2015 and 2016. But the main driver of the employment gains seemed to be that U.S. coal was emerging after years of retrenchment and lots of bankruptcies as a consolidated, leaner industry with a friend in the White House and hopes for better times ahead. Robert Murray, whose privately held Murray Energy Corp. had bought several bankrupt mining operations, predicted just after President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 that Trump would put the industry on a path to revival “in three months” thanks to environmental deregulation and resurgent demand from steelmakers and other manufacturers.
This week, Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy protection. The biggest U.S. coal miner, Peabody Energy Corp., which emerged from bankruptcy in April 2017, announced a 21.7% revenue decline for the quarter ending in September. In its earnings release, Peabody also said it planned to “reweight its investments” away from the U.S. “to capture higher‐growth Asian demand.” Some U.S. mine shutdowns and layoffs have been announced already, and as Bloomberg’s Will Wade reported earlier this month, all signs point to more cutbacks soon. The coal mining employment decline may show up in this Friday’s jobs report, or it may take a little longer, but it’s coming.
What happened to the industry’s comeback? Well, for one thing, coal has its limits as an export commodity for U.S. miners. It’s bulky, it doesn’t command a high price and the No. 1 export destination, India, is really far away. Exports stopped rising in the spring of 2018, have fallen more than 40% since, and even at their peak only amounted to about 15% of U.S. production. For another, industrial coal use has failed to rebound as hoped, with an increase in demand for coking coal used in steelmaking more than offset by falling demand for other uses — and now the steel boomlet seems to be fading as well. Industrial uses account for only about 7% of U.S. coal consumption, down from nearly 50% in the 1950s.
But this story is mostly about electricity generation, which accounted for 93% of U.S. coal consumption and 84% of production in 2018. Overall domestic electricity use, after setting a new record in 2018 for the first time since 2007, is down over the first eight months of 2019 thanks to slightly cooler weather. And the shift away from coal in power generation resumed after a lull in 2017, with coal-fired power plant retirements in 2018 nearly breaking the record set in 2015.
It was exactly this shift that President Trump had pledged to stop — even reverse. He has clearly failed. It’s not for lack of trying: The Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back the Clean Power Plan that the Barack Obama administration drew up to restrict carbon-dioxide emissions by power plants, and the Energy Department tried to force electricity consumers to subsidize coal and nuclear power to keep plants open. The latter effort foundered in part because of a peculiarity of American governance: The members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who decide on such matters are presidential appointees, but some have to be Democrats and all are free to go against the president’s wishes without much consequence.
The overriding issue, though, seems to be that the electrical utility industry just isn’t buying what the president is selling, in part because its leaders assume that future presidents won’t share his head-in-the-sand attitude toward climate change but mainly because burning coal to generate electricity makes less and less economic sense amid a fracking boom that has kept natural gas cheap and technological progress that has driven down the cost of wind and solar. In short, promising a coal revival was a shortsighted, ill-informed and unrealistic thing for the president to do.
These promises do seem to have helped create and sustain a couple thousand coal mining jobs for a couple of years, which is something. Now, though, those jobs are likely to begin disappearing just as the president ramps up his reelection campaign. This should be a warning to anyone who ever banks on what Trump says, such as the stock market investors who bid up prices every time the White House says something hopeful about trade negotiations with China. It probably won’t have major consequences in the 2020 election, though, given that the three states with the most coal miners — West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming — don’t have a lot of electoral votes and are highly unlikely to flip to the Democrat under any circumstances.
Pennsylvania, the state with the fourth-most coal miners, is a more interesting case, in that it’s big, it’s a swing state and it’s an epicenter of the natural gas fracking boom, with three times as many people now working in oil and gas extraction as in coal mining.(1) Democratic contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said they would move to ban fracking, with Warren pledging last month that she would do so on her first day as president. A fracking ban could help coal miners, at least temporarily, but would be a disaster for natural gas drillers and for the gigantic new Royal Dutch Shell plastics plant under construction near Pittsburgh, and would probably mean higher electricity prices for everybody. It’s also something that neither Sanders nor Warren may be able to deliver. Donald Trump does not have a monopoly on unfulfillable campaign promises. So what’s a Pennsylvania fossil-fuels worker to think?
(1) That's according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, and includes support activities for oil and gas extraction and coal mining as well as the extraction and mining themselves.
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Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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