[Marxism] Vaclav Smil on Trump's promise to bring back coal jobs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 30 07:06:03 MDT 2017

(Smil is an outstanding Canadian scientist who writes about energy and 
the environment.)

Washington Post Op-Ed, March 30, 2017
Trump's coal policy will likely do just what Obama's did
By Vaclav Smil

President Trump's latest executive order on energy policy seeks to 
fulfill what he repeatedly promised during his campaign rallies: "A lot 
of people are going to be put back to work, a lot of coal miners are 
going back to work. The miners are coming back." Understandably, 
laid-off and underemployed miners in Appalachian hollows like to hear 
this message — but few of them will actually be hired. Robert Murray, 
chief executive of the country's largest privately held coal-mining 
company, put it bluntly: "He can't bring them back."

This reality has almost nothing to do with government's preferences or 
orders: The retreat from American coal mining was not caused by 
President Barack Obama's environmental regulations or by any ideological 
dislike of the fuel that provided the energy foundations of modern 
civilization. The history of energy use is a sequence of transitions to 
sources that are cheaper, cleaner and more flexible.

Size of the markets and technical imperatives make these transitions 
relatively slow, but the process is inexorable. That is why coal 
displaced wood and charcoal and why, in turn, its many former uses 
(railroads, shipping, household heating, industrial production) were 
displaced by fuels refined from crude oil and by natural gas.

At the beginning of the 21st century, global coal use was largely 
limited to two big remaining markets: generating electricity and using 
high-quality coal to produce metallurgical coke to produce iron (which 
is then turned into steel). In 2000, the United States derived half of 
its electricity from coal — a substantial share of it produced in aging 
plants built during the 1950s and 1960s (the decades of rising 
electricity demand). At this point, natural gas generated only 16 
percent of electricity, and its stagnating domestic production seemed to 
make future large-scale imports of natural gas inevitable. Then came the 
rapid advances of hydraulic fracturing (shale gas and oil), and by 2009, 
the United States once again became the world's largest producer of 
natural gas.

The economics became irresistible. Burning clean natural gas in highly 
efficient gas turbines (which can convert 60 percent of fuel's energy, 
compared with 40 percent in the best coal-fired stations) became the 
most obvious choice. Secondarily, falling costs of wind turbines and 
solar panels made these new renewables more affordable in windy and 
sunny locations.

The result has been dramatic: In 2016, 30 percent of U.S. electricity 
came from coal (a reduction of more than 40 percent in 15 years), 34 
percent originated from natural gas, and more than 6 percent came from 
wind and solar. Coal might not have fallen so quickly had electricity 
demand kept growing, but since 2010, consumption has been either flat or 
slightly declining.

The other formerly large coal market is almost gone: More than 90 
percent of China's steel production starts with iron produced in blast 
furnaces fueled with coke, but two-thirds of America's declining 
domestic steel production now comes from recycled metal melted in 
electric arc furnaces. As a result, coking coal's share in America's 
overall coal use has fallen below 3 percent.

And while the United States is still a net coal exporter, foreign sales 
declined by nearly 60 percent between 2014 and 2016. International coal 
prices have been falling as well. So where would additional coal go in a 
country with stagnating electricity generation that is now dominated by 
natural gas, with marginal need for coking coal and with plummeting 
exports in a softening global market?

Exceptional circumstances can accelerate the gradual process of energy 
transitions: France's decision to develop nuclear energy on a grand 
scale is perhaps the best example of how that can be done by government 
fiat. In contrast, America's accelerated shift from coal has been driven 
by an inevitable embrace of cheaper natural gas.

And this substitution has another welcome consequence: Because per unit 
of energy natural gas combustion produces only about 45 percent of the 
carbon dioxide that coal does, energy-related emissions of this leading 
greenhouse gas in the United States declined by about 15 percent since 
fracking took off in 2005 — at a faster rate than in Germany with its 
"Energiewende," a highly subsidized pursuit of accelerated shift to 
non-carbon energies.

This all leads to an unexpected conclusion: Actions by Trump may have as 
little effect on America's energy use as did those issued by the 
previous administration.  Economic and technical imperatives — not any 
preconceived directives — will keep propelling the process of energy 

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