Can Trump Turn Back Time On Coal Mining Employment?
President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday, repealing many of the environmental regulations introduced by his predecessor Barack Obama and rescinding a moratorium on the leasing of federal land to coal mining companies. In “ending the war on coal”, Trump tries to make good on his campaign promise to bring thousands of unemployed coal miners back to work and secure U.S. energy independence.
As Statista’s Felix Richter notes, Trump, like many of his supporters, blames Obama’s environmental policies for the coal industry’s decline, which, as the chart below illustrates, started long before Obama took office in 2009. While it is true that coal consumption and mining employment did drop significantly during Obama’s presidency, experts keep pointing out that the decline was caused primarily by the rise of natural gas and only secondarily by environmental regulation.
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In the late 2000s, a boom in natural gas production, driven by new hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology, drove down prices for natural gas and the demand for electricity produced from coal subsequently plummeted. In 2000, coal accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation. By 2016, that percentage had dropped to around 30 percent with natural gas going the opposite direction. When natural gas surpassed coal for the first time in 2016, the EIA concluded that the rise of gas “was mainly a market-driven response to lower natural gas prices that have made natural gas generation more economically attractive”.
Repealing environmental regulation will likely slow down the decline of the coal industry, but it is highly doubtful that it will reverse a trend that has been ongoing for decades. By easing fracking limitations, President Trump’s anti-regulation policy may even worsen the coal industry’s situation as laxer extraction rules could drive down the price of natural gas even further.