[Marxism] Vaclav Smil on Trump's promise to bring back coal jobs
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 30 07:34:22 MDT 2017
Further confirmation of Smil:
NY Times, Mar. 30 2017
Coal Mining Jobs Trump Would Bring Back No Longer Exist
By HIROKO TABUCHI
In Decatur, Ill., far from the coal mines of Appalachia, Caterpillar
engineers are working on the future of mining: mammoth haul trucks that
The trucks have no drivers, not even remote operators. Instead, the
850,000-pound vehicles rely on self-driving technology, the latest in an
increasingly autonomous line of trucks and drills that are removing some
of the human element from digging for coal.
When President Trump moved on Tuesday to dismantle the Obama
administration’s climate change efforts, he promised it would bring
coal-mining jobs back to America. But the jobs he alluded to — hardy
miners in mazelike tunnels with picks and shovels — have steadily become
vestiges of the past.
Pressured by cheap and abundant natural gas, coal is in a precipitous
decline, now making up just a third of electricity generation in the
United States. Renewables are fast becoming competitive with coal on
price. Electricity sales are trending downward, and coal exports are
All the while, the coal industry has been replacing workers with
machines and explosives. Energy and labor specialists say that no one —
including Mr. Trump — can bring them all back.
“People think of coal mining as some 1890s, colorful, populous frontier
activity, but it’s much better to think of it as a high-tech industry
with far fewer miners and more engineers and coders,” said Mark Muro,
senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
“The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological
changes, not to mention the price of natural gas or renewables,” Mr.
Muro said. “Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring
back the same number of workers.”
Estimating the employment gains and losses from moves to regulate
greenhouse emissions has become a political exercise.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed carbon regulations,
warned that former President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan
would lead to an average loss of more than 200,000 American jobs each
year through 2030 — a wildly overstated projection, energy and labor
The Obama-era plan, the effort Mr. Trump has vowed to dismantle, would
have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants, frozen construction of
new plants and replaced them with vast new wind and solar farms. Mr.
Obama had pledged as part of the Paris climate pact that the United
States would cut its emissions about 26 percent from 2005 levels by
2025, and carrying out the Clean Power Plan was essential to meeting
Environmental groups have given bold estimates of their own, arguing
that jobs related to clean energy and energy efficiency would increase
under the plan — by as many as 274,000 through 2020, according to the
Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, estimated that the plan
would lead to a gain of as many as 80,000 jobs by 2020.
None of those estimates have even begun to be tested. The power plan
from the Obama administration had not been put into effect because it
had been blocked by the Supreme Court.
Part of the difficulty in forecasting the employment fallout is the many
variables involved: prices of coal and gas, the projected growth and
cost of renewable energy, and jobs generated by energy efficiencies.
Even coal executives remain muted in their optimism about the Clean
Power Plan rollback, which they say is nowhere near enough to return
coal to its dominant perch atop power markets and put tens of thousands
of coal miners to work.
Then there is the technology.
Caterpillar’s autonomous trucks are already being used at mines in
Western Australia. “An autonomous truck doesn’t need to stop for lunch
breaks or shift changes,” Caterpillar said in a promotional page on its
website. And it is proceeding with semiautonomous drills, including a
system that lets one worker control three drills at once.
A shift from underground coal mines to surface mines — which involves
opening mountains with controlled explosions, then using automated heavy
machinery to mine the coal — has also led to a decline in mining jobs.
In 1980, the industry employed about 242,000 people. By 2015, that
figure had plunged 60 percent, to fewer than 100,000, even as coal
production edged up 8 percent. Helped by automation, worker productivity
more than tripled over the same period, according to data from the
federal Energy Information Administration and the Brookings Institution.
And a recent study by the International Institute for Sustainable
Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment predicted
that automation was likely to replace 40 to 80 percent of workers at mines.
Automation makes mines more “safe, efficient and productive,” said
Corrie Scott, a Caterpillar spokeswoman. “While mines would not need as
many drivers, they will need more people who use and understand the
latest technology,” she said.
“However way you spin it, gas and renewables are going to continue to
replace coal,” said Nicolas Maennling, senior economics and policy
researcher at Columbia University and an author of the automation study.
“And in order to stay competitive, coal will have to increase
automation,” he said. “What Mr. Trump does will make little difference.”
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