On Thursday, US President Trump signed legislation blocking the Stream Protection Rule, a key Obama regulation that limited mining companies from dumping excess spoil into waterways. Waste from mining operations can contain sulphur-bearing minerals which, mixed with water, create what the EPA calls “acid mine drainage”. It’s a fair trade-off, in Trump’s mind, for stimulating coal industry job growth. Trump is set to kill even more regulations. The problem: Deregulation won’t bring back coal jobs.
The accompanying press release, “President Trump: Putting Coal Country Back to Work”, is full of bizarre half truths about Trump’s plans for workers and the fossil fuel industry. Re-activating the highly controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines is called “expediting the environmental review and approval processes for domestic infrastructure projects”, and a recently-killed bill that required oil companies to disclose the foreign governments they send money to is called “a costly regulation that threatened to put domestic extraction companies and their employees at an unfair disadvantage”.
Citing his pledge to “end the war on coal”, Trump promised to cancel “harmful regulations created under the Obama Administration”. But as energy experts are forced to point out ad nauseam these days, environmental regulations aren’t what’s killing the US coal industry.
“Analysts of the energy sector that have examined the state of the coal industry in the US have come to the conclusion that a lot of the production and employment declines are driven almost entirely by non regulatory factors,” Keith Gaby, Senior Communications Director for the Environmental Defence Fund told Gizmodo.
In fact, the massive drop in coal mining jobs began under Reagan, and has continued as the US has cycled through conservative and liberal-leaning administrations. Early job losses had to do with changes in the industry, including a push toward automation. Over the past decade, coal has also faced stiff competition from abundant, low-cost natural gas. These factors compounded to result in the heaviest losses the industry has seen in recent history — more than 200,000 layoffs between 2014 and 2016.
“A lot of the blame that the coal industry casts on EPA [for] the current state of the coal industry is really misplaced,” Gaby said. “It’s been competition from natural gas, its been really disastrous mergers and acquisitions within the coal industry, its been declining productivity that has accounted for recent employment declines.”
Deregulation just isn’t the right tool for bringing jobs back. But there are a number of opportunities in the clean energy sector. Wind and solar power are booming as prices fall, accounting for two thirds of all new electricity production in the United States in 2015. In 2016, the solar industry sector added 51,000 jobs, a 24.5 per cent increase over the previous year.
The majority of the regulations now on the chopping block may be good for the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line, but have little to do with actual job growth and, crucially, risk endangering both the environment and welfare of workers. Trump’s right to want to people these people back to work, but wrong to continue tying their fortunes to a plummeting industry.