Numerous claims are being made that U.S. coal mining jobs are being exported to other countries (e.g., “Voting for return of jobs,” Nov. 10 letter) or that there is a “war on coal.”
As someone who has studied fossil fuels for over three decades, including “clean coal technologies,” I would like to share some facts that may help readers in reaching informed conclusions.
U.S. coal production peaked in 2006 at 1,163 million tons and has since been declining steadily to 897 million tons in 2015. Nonetheless, for at least the last six decades, the U.S. has consistently been a net exporter of coal, exporting 63 million tons in 2015.
Coal mining employment has declined by approximately 25,000 jobs during this time because of lower domestic demand.
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Currently, over 92 percent of U.S. coal consumption is for electric power generation. Total power production in the U.S. has been approximately constant over the last decade. Average residential electricity prices have increased at a slower rate in the last decade than prior. Thus, reduction in coal consumption has not led to “energy poverty,” as some have claimed.
The vast majority, over 80 percent, of the reduction in electricity generated from coal has been offset by electricity generated from natural gas, with the remainder offset by increases in wind, solar and nuclear power generation.
Why has natural gas consumption increased and coal consumption decreased? Price. Natural gas prices for power production have dropped by over 50 percent from 2007 to 2015. Coal prices are essentially unchanged.
Some claim that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan is responsible for the loss of coal mining jobs. The Clean Power Plan, which was not proposed until 2014, was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year before it could go into effect. Implementation of the plan is pending a detailed review by the U.S. Court of Appeals that is currently underway. Thus, the Clean Power Plan is not a reason for the market-driven, decade-long shift from coal to natural gas.
Even for the 27 states that officially oppose the Clean Power Plan, the majority if not all of them would be able to comply (including North Carolina) based on current trends and achievable compliance options. Even if the Clean Power Plan were to somehow be withdrawn, the market forces that are reducing coal consumption are already at play.
U.S. coal mining jobs that have been lost have not gone overseas. They are simply gone. The domestic energy mix is changing because of market forces. However, the lost coal mining jobs are offset by increased domestic employment in other energy sectors. If there is a “war on coal,” it is being waged by natural gas.
H. Christopher Frey
Glenn E. Futrell Distinguished University Professor, Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, N.C. State
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the letter.