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

Louis Proyect 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

In Decatur, Ill., far from the coal mines of Appalachia, Caterpillar 
engineers are working on the future of mining: mammoth haul trucks that 
drive themselves.

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 
specialists say.

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 
that target.

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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