Robert Chianese, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Northridge, CA
President Trump wants to bring back the US coal industry and return jobs to workers in states that have supplied coal to the nation for generations for heating, power plants, and manufacturing. About 175,000 jobs derive from coal, less than .12% of the US labor force, with approximately 80,00 left in actual mining after 60,000 lost jobs since 2011. Trump blames job losses in this area on political forces and unnecessary environmental regulations. However, new massive sources of natural gas and the shift to clean renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, as well as more efficient and low-carbon technologies in energy use, are key factors. In the end, the decline of coal is mainly due to economic and technological forces. (1)
Coal Jobs may be Gone Forever
Shale gas and fracking have produced cheaper and more ample supplies of natural gas for generating electricity. Regulations of emissions have made coal use more expensive, and such regulations are supported by the vast majority of people. Also foreign markets for our coal are dwindling. There’s a glut of coal, mainly in China, though it too is cutting back, with US production down to 1993 levels. And major coal companies are going bankrupt. (2) Finally, the wind and solar industries are producing more renewable, clean, and cheaper sources of electricity than coal can provide, and there are twice as many solar workers than coal workers.
Any plan to boost coal use and bring back jobs to the industry would be un-economical and would likely require federal subsidies to states, businesses, and perhaps workers themselves. This expensive propping up of coal is not likely to happen, particularly with the conservative mindset of our current government. The coal industry is quickly becoming yesterday’s energy source.
There Are Jobs In Alternative Energy
A study by ICF International reported the likelihood of 1million jobs in renewable energy by 2030 and 2 million by 2050 in the construction, utility, and manufacturing industries coupled with the higher demand for electricity in many sectors of the economy—transportation, manufacturing, etc. . While the study acknowledges losses to the fossil fuel industry, in the long run the economy as a whole will benefit and investments in the new industry can reach $200 billion. (3)
Another report predicted that in the US, solar power will provide 200,000 jobs by 2015 with a similar number of jobs in wind power. In 2014, these jobs paid $20-$40 per hour for installers, $30-$60 per hour for sales jobs, and $30-$40 for designers. (4)
Little Planning for Transitions to Renewables
The global transition to renewable energy use has already produced 7.7 million jobs world wide, but how to get the 12 million coal, oil, and gas workers world wide into the new alternative energy economy is unclear. In the US, there is a lack of planning, and deliberate exiting from coal may not be a smooth process. Some coal, oil, and gas unions want a place at the table to shape decision-making so that the outcome provides a job as well as security. Pensions and community impacts from job losses will have to be accounted for, not an easy effort. There is no “just transition” to the new energy sources, reports Megan Rowling of Reuters (5).
Not Much Retraining of Fossil Fuel Workers
A Forbes report reveals that retraining coal, oil, and gas workers is being handled by individual companies and state agencies. In Colorado, 45,000 workers overall have completed the program sponsored by the nonprofit Solar Energy International and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. (6) In Wyoming, loss of fossil fuel workers makes bringing them back when the price of coal, oil and gas may rise is a problem, but some workers have left that industry for other jobs, for example in machine tools, though that pays less. (7) But at this stage, there is no widespread or national program to provide the millions of dollars for retraining workers in the coal and fossil fuel industries for employment in the renewable ones.
Some fossil fuel workers may be able to transition to renewables without much training. However, unless the federal government under the Trump administration is willing to fund his promise to bring back coal and the jobs that go with it, coal will diminish even more. And if it is not willing to provide the funds to retrain fossil fuel workers for new jobs in renewables, the administration will leave the laid off workers to fend for themselves for retraining in clean energy or other kinds of jobs.
While new jobs in renewable energy will become ever more available, who gets those jobs is at this stage very unclear. Trump seems unwilling to help the coal workers he’s rallying to his cause.
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