Trump's unrealistic promises in coal country

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE pledged last week to revive coal mining employment in Appalachia. "We're going to get those miners back to work," Trump said, adding: "The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania ... Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me." He later donned a coal miner's helmet for a West Virginia rally lined with signs proclaiming "Trump Digs Coal."

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Despite the bold pledge, Trump is about as likely to bring back the heyday of coal mining employment as to cajole Mexico to fund a border wall. Neither is going to happen, no matter who is elected president.

The factors pushing down Appalachian coal mining employment extend far beyond the powers of a campaign pledge. Employment began to decline in the 1980s, as production shifted to Western states like Wyoming where thick seams of coal could be accessed with far fewer workers than needed in Appalachian mines. By the time President Obama took office, job counts had fallen by more than half nationally, even as coal production stood near record highs.

Since then, hydraulic fracturing technologies opened up natural gas supplies that previously had been unaccessible in shale formations. As natural gas prices fell, gas became a cheaper option than coal for generating electricity. Beyond cost, natural gas offers utilities a more nimble option than coal for balancing variable demands as more intermittent power sources such as wind and solar are integrated into the grid. Natural gas is expected to exceed coal as a source of electricity for the first time this year.

For a while, it appeared that exports might provide an outlet for U.S. coal as domestic demand waned. Indeed, coal exports nearly doubled from 2009 to 2012. Since then, coal exports have plummeted as demand has waned in Europe and Asia. The Energy Information Administration forecasts further declines in coal exports next year. The world's biggest coal consumer, China, has slashed coal imports as it acts to reduce its reliance on coal and alleviate severe air pollution problems. Other countries are moving to cut coal use to satisfy their commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

With export markets sagging, coal mines rely on an aging fleet of domestic power plants as their main customers. Most coal power plants were built in the 1970s or earlier, with very few built since the turn of the century. While environmental regulations influence the pace of retirements, the lifetimes of these facilities are ultimately finite.

New power generation coming online has been supplied almost entirely by wind, solar and natural gas, with renewables providing 69 percent of new capacity in 2015. The financial services firm Lazard estimates that wind, utility-scale solar and natural gas all provide cheaper options for new power generation than coal, even before considering subsidies. Halting tax credits for renewables might shift the mix between renewables and natural gas, but would do little to boost coal.

Shutting off support for the nascent renewables industry would hardly be a pro-jobs strategy. The solar industry is estimated to employ over 200,000 workers, more than were employed by coal mining at the height of the Reagan years. Less than 60,000 coal mining jobs remain today, even as coal still dwarfs solar as a source of electricity. It simply takes far more workers to install solar panels than to mine coal from the ground.

Thus, even if Trump's pledge appears unattainable, the outlook for energy sector employment is far from bleak. Of course, like politics, job markets are local, so significant help may be needed in communities that had relied on coal mines for employment. Such help would bring more lasting support to hardstruck communities than campaign promises that cannot be fulfilled.

Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.