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Facing Tradeoffs: The Decline of Coal

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Everything in energy policy involves tradeoffs, and that includes shifting away from coal. (Bureau of Land Management photo)

Sometimes, the under appreciated ingredient in energy policy is fear.

For some, it’s fear of not being able to afford to fill up the gas tank or run the air conditioner. For others it’s irreversible climate change. In places like Kentucky, it’s about having a job, period.

In the coal country of Kentucky, the slow decline of coal as a fuel and the shift to natural gas and renewables for electricity  is being viewed with something close to terror, and not far from conspiracy, according to The New York Times. A proposal to switch the Big Sandy power plant from coal to natural gas caused so much controversy that the utility is asking for a rate increase to retrofit it as a more efficient coal plant. In communities where coal has been the dominant industry for a century or more, the fear is understandable.

But the fact remains that in this country at least, coal is on the decline as an energy source – slowly perhaps, but unquestionably on the decline. The Energy Information Administration already projects that no new coal plants are likely to be built in the U.S. over the next 20 years, as economics start to favor renewables and natural gas, and many existing plants will close. Environmentalists have targeted coal as the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and a major contributor to climate change.

In the case of coal jobs, there’s also the challenge of technology. The federal government projects one major reason why coal and ore mining employment is going to decline is because technology is making these operations more efficient: Fewer workers can produce more coal. That trend will to continue regardless of whether we build more coal plants or not.  Over time, technology could yield benefits that are far more important than increasing producers’ profit margins. If robots can do more of the work, it will save human beings from having to perform one of the most treacherous, difficult forms of labor around.

Shifting from coal to natural gas  is potentially a huge win for the environment. It isn’t the same as moving off fossil fuels altogether, but  it does cut down on greenhouse emissions. A similar shift in the United Kingdom, the so-called “dash for gas” in the 1990s, is a major reason why Britain has held its greenhouse emissions essentially flat over the past 20 years.

But the dash for gas also shows how harsh the tradeoffs can be. Coal was once the biggest employer in Britain, and as recently as 30 years ago it employed more than 200,000 people in more than 300 mines. By 2010, that had shrunk to about 6,000 workers. One of the more bitter, blacker comedies of the 1990s, Brassed Off, was about a group of miners clinging to performances in their colliery band as the plant shuts down.  This was a traumatic, angry shift in Britain, shaped less by environmentalism than by the bitter confrontation between unions and the government.

Economists, who tend to take the long view, are actually pretty sanguine about major shifts like this. The term they like to use is “creative destruction.” New products and services push out old ones, and the jobs that are lost in those old industries are usually made up in new ones. It’s like the old story of John Henry and the steam hammer. The steam hammer eliminated the jobs of people like steel-driving men like John Henry – but someone, somewhere else, was hiring people to build steam hammers. If the new technology is better, society as a whole eventually wins.

The problem, of course, is that while the overall economy adjusts pretty well to these changes; individuals and the towns they live in do not. John Henry was not going to be offered a job in the steam hammer factory.  As a society, we’re shown ourselves to be absolutely terrible at helping people through these changes, even when we see them coming. Ask an auto worker, or a steel worker, or people in any kind of manufacturing. This sector used to provide one in every four American jobs.  Now it’s down to one in 10.  We’ve created plenty of service jobs over that time. But getting specific manufacturing workers into new jobs has proven to be a huge challenge. The same will be true in energy. Green jobs may well broadly make up for lost fossil fuel jobs, but making sure fossil fuel workers end up in green jobs, or any job, is another matter.

Tradeoffs are a reality in life and politics and in energy.  This is a case where we can actually see the people who are afraid of being traded off in pursuit of a better energy future. If the tradeoff is necessary and just – if coal is too dirty and dangerous a fuel to continue using – then we also have a moral obligation  to find ways to help the humans beings whose lives are being upended.  We should build an energy future that’s more about hope than fear.