Friday, November 4, 2016

Hillary Clinton: Coal Today and Tomorrow


I live in Appalachia – Southern Ohio to be exact. Most of our local television stations are located in West Virginia coal country. Night after night while watching these stations, I am bombarded with election ads for candidates who denounce Hillary Clinton for her statement that “we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” It seems nearly every candidate in West Virginia is campaigning by denouncing Clinton and distancing himself/herself from Clinton's stance on coal mining.

I thought it would be interesting and enlightening to dig deeper into Hillary Clinton's energy policy, so let me present what I have found by doing online research.

First of all, Clinton did make this comment. I understand that interpreting the statement alone, without context, makes it seem senseless. Since then, she has apologized for her unfortunate word choice at a CNN Town Hall meeting in March. She insists she wants to help coal country through a difficult economic transition and that her comment should be understood in a larger frame of reference.

Here is what Clinton said in a larger context:

"We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people," Clinton said. "Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on."

(Scott Horsley. “Fact Check: Hillary Clinton And Coal Jobs.” National Public Radio. May 03, 2016.)

Why are coal miners going out of business? This is partly because of the Obama Administration policies designed to combat climate change by shifting power-production away from carbon-intensive coal. A fracking boom resulted which has led to a sharp drop in the price of natural gas. Together, these forces have put coal at a competitive disadvantage.

Dozens of U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has put the Obama Administration's power plant rules on hold temporarily, many utilities continue to shift away from coal for both economic and environmental reasons.

Clinton's campaign has placed a priority on investing in and incentivizing renewable-energy technology to help create jobs and transition the US to a lower-carbon economy.

Hillary Clinton believes many lost coal jobs aren't coming back. The low price of coal, coupled with declining production in the coal mines. supports this belief. She said, "The way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs.” Rather than reversing Obama's climate agenda, as Republicans have promised to do, Clinton wants to help coal country adapt.

Clinton's campaign announced a $30 billion initiative to invest in the "economic diversification" of former coal-mining towns in the fall of 2015. The plan calls for increased job training, small-business development, and infrastructure investment, especially in Appalachia. Clinton's plan, while supporting long-term healthcare for retired coal miners, will also focus on redeveloping former coal-mine sites for different uses. She'll finance her plan using "unappropriated" resources from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

(Jeremy Berke. “Here's where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on energy issues.” Business Insider. September 25, 2016.)

The Evident Dilemma

For over a century, the United States has held the largest proven coal reserves in the world, an estimated 26 percent of the global total. In 2012, the United States produced 1 billion short tons of coal, of which over 125 million short tons were exported. (One must still consider the New York Times reported recently that China halted plans for new coal-fired power stations in many parts of the country, and construction of some approved plants will be postponed until at least 2018.)

Coal is one the cheapest and most polluting fuel sources. Still, coal production has fallen over the past decade. No doubt, it is critical to the economies of many Appalachian and Rust belt states. Yet, the future of coal production reminds me of the commercial in which the auto mechanic reminds the customer he can “pay now or pay later.” Alternative forms of energy are gaining popularity in America.

One must consider that coal power is the US's top source of carbon dioxide, which is a primary cause of global warming in the air, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

A decade and a half ago, more than half the electricity in the U.S. was produced by burning coal. Yet, today that's shrunk to less than a third, and coal continues to lose market share to natural gas and renewable sources of power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2015, U.S. coal production dropped 10.3% year-over-year to below 900 million short tons, the lowest annual production level since 1986.

In 2013, there were 80,209 people employed in coal mining in the U.S. Of those, 47,475 worked in underground mining, and 35,398 worked in surface mining. In 2006, the average age of coal miners in West Virginia is 55.

(Tom Vanden Brook, “Recruist hungry for good jobs head off to coal mines.” USA Today. February 14, 2006.)

Coal mining employment dropped below 75,000 in 2014, with Appalachian mines seeing the steepest declines. The average number of employees at U.S. coal mines decreased 12.0% to 65,971 employees, the lowest on record since EIA began collecting data in 1978.

A 2011 Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies report, “A Fraction of the Jobs,” found that power companies have overestimated the number of jobs created by new coal-fired power plants. The analysis looked at the six largest new coal-fired power plants to come online between 2005 and 2009, and combed through each project’s initial proposals and job projection data, including public statements, published documents and other material. They then compared that data to actual employment — before, during and after construction — in the areas where the projects were built, relying chiefly on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

The report found that only a little over half - or 56 percent - of every 1,000 jobs projected, appeared to be actually created as a result of the coal plants’ coming online. In four of the six counties, the projects delivered on just over a quarter of the jobs projected. Only one county, the Walter Scott unit number 4 project in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, saw an increase in construction employment that was roughly commensurate with the numbers predicted before the project there got under way

(Tom Zeller. “Coal, Jobs and America's Energy Future.” The New York Times. March 31, 2011.)

While the future for coal looks bleak, the wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States. Wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year, according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association. Wind industry employment includes 13,000 manufacturing jobs concentrated in regions of the country hard hit by the de-industrialization of the past two decades.

In addition, the cost of providing electricity from wind and solar power plants has plummeted over the last five years, so much so that in some markets renewable generation is now cheaper than coal or natural gas.

Both industries have managed to bring down costs through a combination of new technologies and approaches to financing and operations. Still, the industries are not ready to give up on their government supports just yet. Those prices were made possible by generous subsidies that could soon diminish or expire, but recent analyses show that even without those subsidies, alternative energies can often compete with traditional sources.

(“Renewable Energy And Job Creation: Everything You Have Read Up Until Now Is Wrong.” Business Insider. January 21, 2011.)

And, despite all of the fuss over Obama and his energy policy, the 2013 Appalachian Voices report, “Growth of U.S. Coal Jobs: Federal Data Showing Coal Mining Employment Trending Higher Since 2009,” which looks at Mining Safety and Health Administration data on coal mining jobs, shows that the average number of coal-mining jobs under the Obama administration has been 15.3 percent higher than the average under George W. Bush. The report points to increased exports and decreasing productivity --- requiring more workers to extract harder to reach coal – as reasons for the increase.

In 2015, Bloomberg reported “the race for renewable energy has passed a turning point.” The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there's no going back.

The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels, according to an analysis presented Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.

(Tom Randall. “Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables.” Bloomberg. August 14, 2015.)

As the price of wind and solar power continues to plummet, and is now on par or cheaper than grid electricity in many areas of the world, many believe the question is no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long it will take. Solar, the newest major source of energy in the mix, makes up less than 1 percent of the electricity market today but could be the world's biggest single source by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

Is there value in Clinton putting coal miners out of work? Is she merely looking forward to the inevitable and planting West Virginians' feet on more solid ground? To say that she deserves total condemnation for being progressive is far from fair. As I consider watching another few days of commercials aimed at destroying her candidacy because of her coal stance, I look at the poverty and despair in my own area of Appalachia, and I don't believe for one minute that the coal industry is going to break the bonds of joblessness and lack of employment here. We must find richer, better alternatives.

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