I was listening to a bunch of folk up in Coal Country talk about the election and thought – “Do you think people voted for Calvin Coolidge because he said he’d bring the whaling jobs back?”
Because it’s the same thing. Industries DIE. Trump talking about bringing coal back, or steel back is just that – talk. Chinese coal workers make 7 to 12 dollars a day (seriously, that’s what they make). Chinese coal companies are not saddled with the extreme (and very necessary) safety measures that US Coal companies are. China produces 3,874,000,000 tons of coal per year. The U.S. about 906,000,000 (#1 and #2 producers respectively).
Coal production in the U.S. peaked in 2008 at just under 1,200,000,000 tons. The reason for the decline is the same as the reason for the decline in oil production. Price per ton. Since 2011, coal prices have dropped by 50%, from the $80 PMT (Per metric ton) range to the $40 PMT range for US Coal. Chinese Coal – is more expensive at $60 PMT…(someone’s making mint). But we don’t import much Chinese coal at all… so little in fact, 9,675 short tons…that there is no way it affects our production (it in fact represents less than six HOURS of coal production in the U.S.)…. in fact, our coal imports are minuscule. 5,648,775 short tons in 2015 – the equivalent of about two days production (75% of it from Columbia — WHY? I’d bet some trade agreement – we sell them something and buy their coal). But we don’t export much either (though we are a net exporter) – 14.2 million short tons.
So why the drop in production and price? U.S. coal production has declined since 2012, mostly because cheaper natural gas has decreased the demand for coal as a fuel for electricity generation. The technology has changed. And if your industry can’t keep up with technology. It will die. Period. When’s the last time you saw Whale Oil on the shelf? When’s the last time you saw a TAPE DRIVE on a personal computer? When’s the last time went to a store and rented a video from a clerk who is clearly bored with your shit?
The GOP likes to blame the EPA, but regulation doesn’t come close to explaining the loss of 38,000 jobs since the 1980s. Price, production, demand, automation, pressures from the frakking industry (Which is hilarious to me given that the coal folk largely voted for Trump whose Energy Secretary is a BIG Frakking guy – Enjoy that bed you made fellas). The losses have all been in the Appalachians, but coal west of the Mississippi has grown – accounting for nearly 70% of US Coal production increasing from the low 100s of millions of tons in the 1970s to just the neighborhood of 800 million tons last year. Plus Appalachian coal peaked in the 1980s and has been in steady decline since then – in other words, they’re running out of coal. I don’t care which candidate it is, you can’t open MORE coal mines, in a region that is running out of coal.
That said, Appalachia’s problems are simple. They’re the same as Houston’s in the 1980s. Reliance on a single industry. 15% of W. Virginia’s GDP is from coal production – that will collapse eventually. And ethereal promises of bringing coal jobs back, to a place where there isn’t going to be coal, is a dog whistle for people who don’t want to change.