Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Brutal Collapse Of "King Coal" - Why Trump Can't Deliver On His Job Promises

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A miner labors in one of the last remaining mines in Appalachia

Apart from Trump's hundreds of lies:  malicious, facetious and otherwise, are those that impinge on people's lives - by way of empty promises. Thus, his campaign promise to bring coal jobs back to his Trumpy followers is one of the worst. No doubt tens of thousands of families in Appalachia and beyond are waiting with bated breath for his promise to materialize but they could as well wait for those last remaining veins of residual coal to transmute to gold.  It ain't gonna happen, not in this universe.

We already know how Appalachia has been affected - or should. To briefly recite, its coal and other resources have basically been extirpated - the wealth of the entire region converted to industrial and energy capital for the rest of the U.S. In West Virginia alone, thanks to thinning seams, one third of the coal jobs have been lost and none are coming back. Indeed, the erosion of jobs will continue unabated. The effect has left soaring poverty in its wake, now at 35 % of the population in McDowell County, WVA alone.   As reported in a recent issue of New Republic, most residents lack access to even basic necessities such as health care and transportation, not to mention broad band internet. The region is also at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.

Less well known is how the collapse of coal has occurred far beyond the confines of Appalachia, across the nation. This has been reported in a recent WSJ article, 'Coal's Decline Goes Beyond Appalachia' (June 20, p. A3). As the piece notes:

"During the past five years, roughly 350 coal-fired generating units shut down across the U.S., ranging from small units at factories to huge power plants,  according to data from the Energy Information Administration.."

Many of the plants, according to the article, "were built in Appalachia and western states but generators built in faraway places like New England have also turned off."

What gives? A lot of it is simple economics, and the matter of the plants becoming too expensive to operate. For example, in Adams County, Ohio Dayton Power & Light basically decided the plants there wouldn't be economically viable beyond mid-2018. Blame the natural gas from the fracking craze if you want, given that this fracked product is much cheaper and easier to access thus explaining why natural gas fired plants have mushroomed all over the nation leaving sola -fired competition in the dust.  Natural gas is also cleaner, although its advocates do tend to play down the methane (greenhouse gas) aspect.

In terms of growth in the energy sector, natural gas last year surpassed coal for the first time in U.S. electricity generation. Specifically, it provided 34 percent of the nation's power vs. 30 percent for coal, according to the EIA. Worse for coal, alternative energy sources such as wind turbine power and solar are making marked gains, also eating into its economic base. As per a recent (July 3)  WSJ 'Business and Investing' report, natural gas, wind and solar currently deliver 44 percent of power in the U.S.

A classic example of incursion cited by the WSJ was in Cassville, WI where two former coal plants were shut down within four months of each other. One was converted completely to biomass production. Alas, because of the coal shutdown the town has lost 55 percent of its tax revenue making it difficult to fund road maintenance or education.

Meanwhile, the Journal notes that "two plants in New Jersey also closed in June, and more coal units are expected to close in places like Tennessee and Michigan".   Carbon County, UT is still smarting from the loss of a coal fired plant two years ago.  And it goes on an on.

All this telegraphs to sensible communities that coal is a growing economic liability and those states, towns that try to depend on it  for financial support will be severely punished as natural gas and alternative sources make ever greater inroads.  This also shows Trump's promise to return coal jobs is bare bollocks. All the trends and energy indicators are diametrically opposed to any increase in coal's market share,  including jobs that are other than temporary. (Usually associated with extraction from deep veins inaccessible by standard mining methods).

Trump is also too stupid to have known or processed that coal companies have already mostly gone to automation to increase remaining mines' productivity and company profit margins. Thus, they've cut mining jobs by nearly  two thirds since 1985 - realizing that natural gas via fracking produces a bigger 'bang for the fuel' buck.   But don't tell Donald Trump that. Each day it seems this turkey occupying the highest office in the land knows less and less about less and less.

Coal's days are basically over as counties, cities turn to less polluting forms with less CO2 spouted. In relation to the latter, from a report released several days ago we now know the excess carbon dioxide scorching the planet rose at the highest rate on record in 2015 and 2016.  This increase threatens to overwhelm the CO2 absorption capacity of the oceans and other 'sinks' and puts us more at risk for the emergence of the runaway Greenhouse effect.

Let us hope less  noxious energy sources soon displace "King Coal" totally from its present (lesser) perch.

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