Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

On Sept. 4, Cecil Roberts served up a hard truth.

In a talk before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the president of the United Mine Workers of America said, “Coal’s not back. Nobody saved the coal industry.”

Roberts further pointed out that coal-fired power plants are closing their doors around the country, and that’s a “harsh reality.”

Roberts’ remarks fly in the face of the reality-free assertions of President Trump, who told rallygoers in West Virginia last year that “the coal industry is back.” Coal is not back, and almost certainly never will come back, at least not as it once was. And despite the widespread belief that President Obama and his administration were waging a “war on coal” with more stringent environmental regulation, coal’s decline started 40 years ago, when Obama was a freshman in college. Perhaps some of Trump’s policy measures have pushed back coal’s day of reckoning, but its portion of the energy market will continue to get smaller and smaller.

It’s worth emphasizing that market forces have been the primary culprit in this state of affairs, not regulation.

Consider the following: The amount of coal used to fuel the nation’s power grid tumbled by 4% last year. It’s projected to decline a further 8% this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency also estimates that natural gas, which is increasingly cheap thanks to its abundance, is being used for 62% of all coal generation in the United States. Coal follows at 24%, but wind is not far behind at 21%, and solar comes after at 16%. Combined, wind and solar generate more electricity than coal by a wide margin.

The years ahead will see coal’s further diminishment. Moody’s Investor Services believes that by 2030, only 11% of electricity generation will come from coal. The shrinking status of coal is brought home by the fact that there are now more people working in the solar industry than in coal.

As Samantha Gross, a policy analyst for the Brookings Institution, wrote earlier this year, “Any successful policy to revive the industry will be working against economic headwinds, and thus difficult to maintain over the long term.” While acknowledging that the loss of mining and coal-fired power plants “has had tragic consequences” in some communities, “working to ameliorate these impacts in affected communities is likely to be a much more effective strategy than attempting to revive the coal industry with policy.”

Trying to reanimate the coal industry would be like trying to put old-time phonograph cylinders back on the shelves when more and more people are streaming music. We need to embrace the possibilities that come with renewable sources of energy, rather than fruitlessly try to scamper back into the comforts of the past.

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