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One year in, is Trump helping the US coal industry? Not really.

Vox.com logo Vox.com 1/4/2018 David Roberts
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President Donald Trump came into office making extravagant promises to coal miners. He would put them back to work and get coal-fired power plants humming again.

How’s he doing so far?

The research outfit Rhodium Group has just released a helpful snapshot, in the form of a research note on US coal’s performance in 2017. To summarize: Coal production was up, barely, over 2016, but it had nothing to do with Trump or federal policy and produced few new jobs.

Domestic coal demand continues to decline

Trump has done nothing to revive America’s dwindling appetite for coal. US consumption continued its steady decline:

a screenshot of a cell phone: coal 2017 - domestic demand© Provided by Vox.com coal 2017 - domestic demand

The reasons are familiar by now: cheap natural gas, cheap renewables, stagnant electricity demand, and old coal plants getting outcompeted on the market.

These numbers will fluctuate with the weather — coal is expected to do well during the polar vortex — and the legal chaos caused by Trump’s attempts at deregulation might slightly slow the decline, but in the mid- to long-term, decline is the only dish on the menu. “Between 2006 and 2016,” Rhodium writes, “US coal consumption declined by 34 percent and production fell by 37 percent.”

So why was production slightly up, 6 percent over 2016? The answer is exports.

US coal is now dependent on volatile export markets

This year, Asian coal demand, especially for steel production, made something of a recovery, while China and Australia reduced export volumes. The result was a 70 percent jump in US coal exports over 2016:

a close up of a map: coal 2017 - exports© Provided by Vox.com coal 2017 - exports

This has meant a temporary shot in the arm for the industry (which lost so much money betting on exports in 2013), but it is not a long-term plan. Asian coal demand has also entered an era of decline.

More importantly, the bump in exports is unlikely to revive coal employment in the US, or reverse its long-term decline.

US coal employment is barely holding steady at its lowest levels in a century

In 2016, US coal mining jobs hit a historic low of around 75,000 people. (As is frequently noted, Arby’s employs more people than the entire coal mining industry. The US solar industry employed roughly 3.5 times as many people in 2016, adding 51,000 jobs.)

An extended look at the numbers shows that the recent spike in exports has temporarily staunched the bleeding in mining jobs, leading to a fragile plateau:

a close up of a map: coal 2017 - employment© Provided by Vox.com coal 2017 - employment

It seems that US coal employment (what remains of it) is now, like US coal production, dependent on exports, as domestic demand inexorably crumbles beneath it.

Trump is fighting a rear-guard battle

We’re only a year into Trump’s reign, of course, and it’s far too early to predict his ultimate effects on energy markets. But his best case scenario — if Rick Perry succeeds in bailing out coal plants, if Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks pass legal muster, if China’s mounting efforts to ditch coal fail — is that US coal’s decline is temporarily arrested.

Trump can put a little more money into the pockets of coal executives, the ones trying to escape pension and health care obligations to retirees even as they hoover up bonuses. He can ease the environmental and safety regulations that trouble their balance sheets. (Coal mining deaths surged this year.)

But he cannot keep his grand promises to miners. They were always cheap populist lies.

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