Coal in the crosshairs

Colorado has coal jobs. It’s also a hotbed of environmental advocacy, which means President Trump’s actions to roll back the Clean Power Plan and boost fossil fuel production are fanning passions on both sides of the climate debate in Colorado.

The Colorado Mining Association was quick to praise the Trump administration for ending “the War on Coal.” Trump has done his best to portray the Clean Power Plan and a moratorium on new leases of federal coal reserves as job killers. Both were enacted under the Obama administration, though the CPP’s implementation was stayed by a federal court.

On Tuesday, surrounded by coal miners, he signed an executive order nullifying federal climate change policy.

“Come on, fellas,” Trump said. “You know what this is? You know what it says, right? You’re going back to work.”

But as Darryl Fears reported in the Washington Post, the biggest challenges to coal jobs come from market forces — mainly cheap natural gas. There’s also the increasing competitiveness of wind and solar power and the coal industry’s “long-term business model of producing more coal with fewer workers,” according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which Fears quoted in his story.

Stan Dempsey, the CMA president, called the CPP an assault on coal jobs that would cripple “an already reeling industry” while providing little environmental benefit. The moratorium jeopardized many of the 14,000 miners whose livelihoods depend on federal coal, he added.

But critics of the president’s action point to the clean-energy sector as one of the fastest-growing sources of new jobs in the country. Collectively, wind and solar account for nearly 144,000 jobs and more than $83 billion in existing capital investment in Western states, according to a news release by U.S. senators in 10 Western states who are urging Trump to rescind his anti-climate executive order.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet helped lead an effort to introduce a bill that would “block President Trump’s far reaching executive order aimed at gutting the Clean Air Act and attacking lifesaving climate change and public health protections.”

Halting the order will keep current safeguards in place to combat climate change, protect American jobs and preserve our path toward energy independence, Bennet said.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, pledged that Trump’s retreat on climate leadership will not deter the state: “We will keep building a clean energy future that creates Colorado jobs, improves our health and addresses the harmful consequences of a changing climate,” he said in a news release.

The implicit question at the heart of this political backlash is whether coal jobs are worth unraveling the economic and environmental gains interwoven in climate change policy. We need jobs on the Western Slope. If those are coal jobs, we’ll take them. But it’s simply unlikely Trump’s actions will lead to more of them.

To stay competitive, coal will have to increase automation.

The New York Times cited a recent study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment that predicted automation was likely to replace 40 to 80 percent of workers at mines.

“The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes, not to mention the price of natural gas or renewables,” Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program told the Times. “Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers.”

If that’s true, President Trump’s actions deserve scrutiny and those leading the charge on climate action should not be deterred.


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