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ZERO SUM GAME

Trump’s promise to coal miners will hurt jobs in other Republican states

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump’s energy plan promises something for everyone.

On the one hand, there are ”more jobs, more revenues, more wealth, higher wages, and lower energy prices.” At the same time, “clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.” These are bold claims with little detail, so far, about how the Trump administration will balance competing priorities.

But a few things are clear.

Trump’s election came after emphasizing the importance of fossil fuels, particularly coal. He also has made claims about climate change that indicate a hostility towards renewable energy, calling climate change a Chinese hoax and vowing to pull out of a global agreement to limit warming agreed in Paris last year. He recently nominated a climate change denier to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and named the head of ExxonMobil as Secretary of State. On the campaign trail, he said solar power is too expensive and wind turbines kill birds (“they’ve killed so many eagles”).

Trump’s focus on the energy industry is shrewd, given that the bulk of America’s energy resources are located in states that voted for him. But favoring one over the other could put the incoming president in a bind. Coal states are not the same as those that will benefit from the burgeoning wind industry, which are in turn different from those where solar power is increasingly generating jobs. Republican-leaning states may find themselves in conflict with one another for preferred status in Trump’s energy policy; will the losers, so to speak, waver in their support for a leader who promised to “make full use of our domestic energy sources” to create millions of jobs?

When Trump talks energy, he mainly extols the virtues of oil, gas, and coal. His fondness for coal is noteworthy, because while the US oil and gas industry has boomed thanks to shale-drilling technology, coal is in structural decline.

Oil and gas companies employ millions of workers and generate billions in revenue. Coal, meanwhile, has been battered by a range of forces, mainly low prices stemming from cheaper alternative fuels—largely shale gas—flooding energy markets. At the same time, a push in the developed world to phase out coal in favor of less-polluting alternatives is underway. Coal produces more CO2 than any other energy source, and construction of new plants must be halted, according to the World Bank and others, in order to stop global warming from it reaches critical, irreversible levels.

In mining, one part of the coal sector, jobs have fallen precipitously in recent years:

Trump accused the Obama administration of destroying coal jobs with the Clean Power Plan, which sought to limit emissions from America’s most-polluting power stations. This will put some 24,000 coal workers out of work, according to a 2015 assessment by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a non-partisan think tank. But it would also create many more jobs in renewable energy, resulting in a net gain of 96,000 jobs. Josh Bivens, who wrote the EPI’s report, confirmed that coal jobs have suffered because of market forces, not Obama legislation.

This is a moot point, because the plan hasn’t yet come into effect; the US Supreme Court put the program on pause in February 2016 in response to a lawsuit by a group of states. And Trump has promised to cancel the Clean Power Plan, America’s main tool to combat climate change.

Caring for coal country

The steady loss of jobs in coal-heavy states has created ghost towns and large pockets of misery. Helping those people is important and, as Trump showed, a vote-winning policy. But revitalizing coal country faces major obstacles.

First, budgets aren’t unlimited. The government can support industries in various ways: through direct subsidy, smoothing regulatory paths, and encouraging private investment, to name a few examples. Fossil fuels, including coal, are subsidized in the US, but in recent years the bulk of energy subsidies have gone to renewable sources of energy, mainly wind and solar.

Whether or not you believe a push into renewables is the right choice, it’s undeniable that the industry is a large and growing job-creator.

The Bureau for Labor Statistics doesn’t break out employment in renewables, or report statistics for the renewable industry as a whole. The Solar Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate the solar industry’s growth, says it calculates jobs data in a similar way to the BLS, except using email and phone rather than postal surveys. It defines solar jobs as anyone employed more than half of their time in the solar industry.

There were 208,000 solar jobs in the US by 2015, according to the foundation, more than double the number just six years earlier. The American Wind Energy Association, said that there were 88,000 wind jobs in the US at the start of 2016. The Department of Labor recently predicted that wind turbine technicians will be the fastest-growing field over the next 10 years.

The biggest potential growth areas for renewable-energy jobs are mainly in states that supported Trump. The windiest places in the country form a corridor of Republican-supporting states across the plains, from North Dakota down to Texas. Arizona, which voted for a Republican president in 16 of the 17 past elections, boasts some of the best conditions for solar power in the country.

Competing priorities

Trump’s insistence on promoting “clean coal” could make his plan to boost the industry particularly expensive, since the technology for capturing coal-fired emissions is currently so costly that almost nobody uses it. Because of historically weak prices for coal, Trump won’t be able to count on the market to give the boost he has promised. That leaves him with a choice of shifting subsidies from workers in one Republican state to another, potentially angering a different group of dispossessed workers in the process.

Or, he’ll just need to subsidize everything, which could be hard to get past the fiscal hawks in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Trump’s motto to “Make America Great Again” is backward-looking by nature, which fits with the plan to bring back jobs that were once plentiful. But it may spell trouble for Trump in states with renewable potential that helped carry him and his party to power, but don’t see the hoped-for gains. When it comes time to turn campaign promises into policies, you can’t please all the people all the time.

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