One of the more outlandish moments in Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris agreement nearly a month ago was his claim that his policies were already getting coal miners back to work. The notion was more suited to a reality TV show than a White House Rose Garden speech, unless 70 jobs extracting metallurgical coal can offset the closure of hundreds of coal-fired generating plants, across the U.S. and around the world.
Trump touted the news that the Acosta Coal Mine in western Pennsylvania was due to open this month—though work on the project began last August, well before the U.S. election—and bragged that it would be the first of many. But analysts took a more balanced view.
“Is it a big deal?” asked Jonathan Marshall, of the UK’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit. “Well, Acosta will only employ 70 people, and will stand almost alone against the tidal wave of mine and power station closures spreading across the U.S. (and the vast majority of the developed world). Recent years have seen a succession of coal mines idled or shut down, many in Trump-supporting heartlands; annual coal production has dropped by more than 400 million tonnes, upwards of 35%, and the number of people employed in the sector is down nearly a quarter since just 2010.”
Marshall acknowledged that three more U.S. mines are expected to open in coming months. “But before we all get carried away with the coal revival, it’s vital to consider the type of coal being mined and how it will be used,” he noted. “Instead of finding itself on a train towards a power station, and ultimately as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the mine will produce metallurgical coal, used to make steel.”
That makes mines like Acosta “a far smaller deal for the coal industry,” he added. “Metallurgical coal makes up a tiny fraction of both U.S. and global output compared with thermal coal, the type that is burned in power stations. And try as he may, The Donald cannot take credit for the recent upturn in metallurgical coal prices, boosted by Chinese production curbs, which rendered the Acosta mine profitable (at least in the short term).”
Against Corsa Coal Corporation CEO George Dethlefsen’s triumphant announcement that “we’re staffing up—we’re going to hire 100 people”, Marshall noted that Pennsylvania coal mines employed 6,633 people in 2015, down from 7,938 the year before. “So the state lost 13 times as many jobs in the course of a single year as are being created now,” with coal consumption in U.S. power plants falling 30% between 2010 and 2016.
National Public Radio’s All Things Considered broadcast pointed to new mines opening in Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and traced the positive impact of even a few new jobs in a community that needs them. “You’ll see a group of 12 or 20 of them come in and have a big breakfast after their shift is over,” said Betty Rhoads, owner of the Coal Miner’s Café in Jennerstown, PA. “It helps the cook get paid. It helps the waitress get paid. It helps us pay our electric bills.”
But despite a temporary uptick in global coal markets, “the direction is downward,” James Stevenson, director of the coal team at IHS Markit, told NPR. “There’s not a whole lot a government can do to change economics, so we don’t really expect a whole lot of change to the coal demand outlook from what any administration really can do.”
“There may be an uptick in the industry from time to time, but overall the outlook for the future of coal is pretty bleak,” agreed Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in an interview with Fox News.
NPR also came back with a succinct answer to Trump’s persistent(ly false) claim that U.S. coal country is suffering from a deliberate war on the carbon-intensive fuel. “Natural gas is the big reason why coal use for electric power has declined,” said Carnegie Mellon University Prof. Jay Apt. “A recent Columbia University study found that regulations accounted for 3.5% of coal’s decline, while competition from natural gas accounted for around 49%,” NPR added.
A similar conversation is going on in the UK, where West Cumbria Mining is on track to spend £200 million reviving an undersea metallurgical coal mine that will employ 500 and export 80% of its output, the Financial Times reports. CEO Mark Kirkbride said the facility could open by the end of 2019, and should earn the support of environmental groups.
“Some have said we shouldn’t be using fossil fuels, but you have to have metallurgical coal to produce the steel to make the wind turbines,” he said.