An America First Energy Plan: An Effort to Revive

the Coal Industry
by Wei Tang

 

Donald Trump’s slogan during his campaign trail, “make America great again”, emphasizes revitalizing American production and maximizing the use of American resources. Besides shale, oil and natural gas reserves, Trump also includes reviving America’s coal industry in his America First Energy Plan. To avoid raising issues of detrimental environmental side effects of burning coal, the Trump Administration brands itself as being “committed to clean coal technology”[1] . Of course, burning coal can never be clean. Its chemical combustion necessarily releases a high level of carbon dioxide, which is a major contributor to global warming [2]. Clean coal technology refers to a way to effectively capture and store carbon emission to mitigate its environmental influence [3] . The captured gas will be used for enhanced oil recovery[4] . While clean coal technology does help capture and store carbon emission, its economic costs and benefits remain questionable. Furthermore, Trump’s America First Energy Plan carries contradictions of its proposed revival of coal industry by also claiming to support natural gas at the same time. It is my belief that the coal industry is in an irreversible decline and is unlikely to recover. We could gain the alleged benefits of its revival easily from boosting other energy sources.

 

The capture and store technology to reduce carbon emission from burning coal does not warrant a sound economic analysis. The extra need of energy to capture the carbon from coal combustion is estimated to be 25% to 40% of the power produced, depending on the approach taken [5] . The availabilities of current technology put a limit on the effectiveness of clean coal. The extra energy required for carbon capture means that we now need to burn more coal to generate enough electricity for the same population, which clearly defeats the purpose of using clean coal technology to reduce carbon emission. Furthermore, storing the carbon captured requires extensive pipeline, compressors and pumps to be constructed. It is estimated that pumping 38% of the carbon released from current US coal combustion would require such infrastructure on a scale equivalent to the entire oil industry[6]. Therefore, unless there is a sudden technology advancement in carbon capture and store, clean coal will just remain a myth.

 

Trump’s promotion of coal industry has two major aims. First, it was to target the votes of American middle class who were hit by the decline of the coal industry. For example, number of coal jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky has been declining for the past 30 years[7] . Second, it is part of Trump’s vision to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, which he sees as a national security interest. However, bringing back jobs for the coal industry and reducing national dependence on foreign energy imports do not have to depend on the revival of the coal industry.

 

A solution to improve employment situations for the former coal workers is to invest in federal training program for reemployment in other energy industries such as solar. There is a rapid growth of solar jobs nationwide, including the coal regions. Nationwide solar industries have seen a 25% increase of solar workers in 2016[8] . In coal regions such as Kentucky, there was a 20% increase over 2015[9] . The rapid growth promises adequate absorption of coal workers into the solar industry. One study finds that the rapid growth of solar-related employment could easily absorb the coal industry layoffs over the next 15 years[10] . Such reemployment requires training programs to equip workers with necessary skills. According to a 2016 study, retraining the current coal workers for reemployment in the energy industry with job security would only cost 5% of the industrial revenue from a single year[11]. Hence such training programs are an economically feasible solution. Therefore, solving the employment issues from a declined coal industry does not necessarily rely on the survival of coal industry.

 

Moreover, reviving coal industry is not the sole answer to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports. Natural gas accounts for one third of America’s electricity generation, the largest sector with coal being the second largest[12]. In fact, natural gas is often seen as a major reason for the decline of coal industry[13]. Due to its price advantage, natural gas is the biggest factor for the sharp decline of coal[14]. Trump’s energy plan puts an emphasis on natural gas production and will only bring even lower priced natural gas, further reducing the demand for coal. Therefore, natural gas may be an economically much better answer to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

 

The economics of clean coal technology and the lack of necessity to bring its revival destine a failure of the coal industry. The Trump Administration will not provide a reliable plan to bring back coal as seen from its contradictory stand on energy resources exploitation. The best answer for the decline of the coal industry is really for the federal government to smooth the transition out of it by means of job training programs. Natural gas and other renewable energy resources represent the future of America’s energy industry.

 

References

[1] “An America First Energy Plan.” The White House. The United States Government, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[2] Solomon, Susan. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis: contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2008. Print.

[3] “Coal.” Can Coal Ever Be Clean? N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[4] “Carbon Capture and Storage from Industrial Sources.” Carbon Capture and Storage from Industrial Sources | Department of Energy. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[5] Power, Sask, Paul Ridderhof, Tod Brilliant, and John Gould/The Wall Street Journal. “Does ‘Clean Coal’ Technology Have a Future?” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 23 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “What’s Driving the Decline of Coal in the United States.” Climate Nexus. N.p., 25 Jan. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

[8] “National Solar Jobs Census.” The Solar Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pearce, Joshua M. “What If All U.S. Coal Workers Were Retrained to Work in Solar?” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

[11] Louie, Edward P., and Joshua M. Pearce. “Retraining investment for U.S. transition from coal to solar photovoltaic employment.” Energy Economics 57 (2016): 295-302. Web.

[12] “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source? – FAQ – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[13] Elizabeth Shogren Analysis DC Dispatch Jan. 23, 2017 Print Share Subscribe Donate Now. “High Country News.” Making sense of President Trump’s energy plan. N.p., 23 Jan. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

[14] “What’s Driving the Decline of Coal in the United States.” Climate Nexus. N.p., 25 Jan. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

 

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