Trump’s exit from Paris climate accord won’t revive coal jobs

THE ABUNDANCE OF INEXPENSIVE NATURAL GAS and the maturation of the renewable energy industry have been decimating the coal industry, not government policy, according to industry observers.
THE ABUNDANCE OF INEXPENSIVE NATURAL GAS and the maturation of the renewable energy industry have been decimating the coal industry, not government policy, according to industry observers. / BLOOMBERG NEWS PHOTO/LUKE SHARRETT

NEW YORK – President Donald Trump is making good on his campaign promise to exit the Paris climate accord, but fulfilling his vow to bring back coal jobs will prove harder.

The vast majority of America’s coal gets shipped to a fast-shrinking fleet of power plants that burn the fuel, and there’s no easy path to boosting demand from the sector. The country’s use of natural gas and renewable energy to produce electricity is meanwhile gathering speed – and creating new generations of energy jobs.

Here are a few reasons why coal employment faces a tough future:

Back in 2008, coal was burned to generate about half of U.S. electricity. In March, it was down to 28 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas became so abundant and cheap with the shale boom that it’s now America’s dominant power-plant fuel.

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“Low natural gas prices, at the end of the day, have decimated most of the U.S. coal production,” said Andrew Cosgrove, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Coal plants have closed down and you’re not reopening them.”

Consider the Tennessee Valley Authority. The government-owned power provider, created by Congress in 1933, has long relied heavily on coal. In recent decades, though, it hasn’t bought the coal from Appalachia, once home to tens of thousands of coal jobs, but from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. Out west, the giant, open-pit coal mines use hulking excavators, requiring vastly fewer coal workers than in Appalachia.

And yet, the TVA is now retiring about half its remaining coal fleet by the end of 2018 – and replacing that electricity with power from gas-fired facilities and renewables.

“That really was driven by business math rather than any environmental standards,” Bill Johnson, TVA’s CEO, said Wednesday in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. “We’re on a path that’s best for our customers.”

There has, of course, been a boom in energy jobs – in gas, wind and solar. The electric power industry’s transition away from coal has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewables, making solar companies the largest employer, with twice as many workers as coal, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

“Coal’s being driven by much more important things than the Paris agreement,” Bloomberg Intelligence’s Cosgrove said. “Most of the job cuts are behind us. Quite frankly, it’s a moot point.”

Tim Loh is a Bloomberg News staff writer.

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