5 Myths of Coal Jobs

What has impacted coal jobs is automation, costs and competition.

In the face of poverty in Appalachia and other coal counties, some policy makers seek to that increase coal production to provide the kind of good jobs that protect and feed families, and provide a hopeful future for their children. It is a great thought, but unfortunately, it is not real. Coal is not coming back because:

  • Automation has decimated the coal industry even during rising output
  • The high costs to rate payers of importing coal
  • Water wasted to mine, transport and use coal
  • Inefficiencies make coal uncompetitive
  • Exports are too low to justify costs at home

Automation  has decimated the coal industry even during rising output

Output of coal has fallen since 2006, but is much higher than 1910 to 1940, when there was the most coal jobs. No matter how much more coal we do or do not burn, automation ensures that fewer and fewer people will mining coal.

The high costs to rate payers of importing coal

Importing coal to produce electricity is an economic drain on states that rely heavily on coal-fired power. That cost is paid to other states and interntionally to other countries. As an example, the annualized expenditure per person is $297 in Alabama, a top coal importer with $1.02 billion leaving the state to pay for coal from the US, Canada and Columbia. Many of the states still very dependent on coal are using funds that might be available to find and develop more economical means of producing energy. In southern states, facing warmer Summers. cooling has become a larger and larger percentage of costs to families.

Water wasted to mine, transport and use coal

Water is used to extract and wash coal; to cool the steam used to make electricity in the power plant; and to control pollution from the plant. Mining as well as dealing with the waste has major effects on water quality. Total water used for coal mining in the United States (including water use for coal washing and cooling of drilling equipment) ranges up to 260 million gallons a day. Given that people use around 100 gallons a day, that water saved could supply from 3% to 8% of California’s water needs, and over five times that in Montana. Agricultural states, along with the Southwest, are particularly affected by water fluctuations and needs.

In addition to water use, coal creates water pollution. In some states, polluted water mixed with flooding can create damage to communities that is costly as well as being a threat to health.

Inefficiencies make coal uncompetitive

Since 2008, coal as a fuel for electricity has been declining. As more than three-quarters of U.S. coal-fired power plants have outlived their 30-year life span, they are being replaced by more efficient  power generation that meet modern demands for efficient and less costly generation.  As of May 2012, a total of 288 coal-fired generating units have been scheduled for closure. The owners concluded that paying for costly upgrades to keep outdated plants running is a bad investment—particularly now that there are cleaner, lower-cost alternatives that can replace old coal units while maintaining the reliability of the electric system. Whether natural gas, clean renewable energy from the wind and sun, or cost-effective efficiency measures to reduce electricity use, energy options that are abundant, cheaper, and cleaner are making it hard for coal to compete.

Cleaning coal so that it doesn’t create a major health hazard is another reason that coal is increasingly uncompetitive around the world. The cost is three-fold:

  1. Equipment is costly to purchase, install and maintain.
  2. Equipment to mitigate the environmental effects of coal further lowers the efficiency, meaning that tht plant produces less useable energy per ton.
  3. The costs of treating asthmatic children and lung disease, as well as the loss of employee productivity, cannot be easily assessed. However, states, health care facilities and disability networks must fund those costs.

Exports are too low to justify costs

An argument could be made for the value of coal as an exportable commodity. Balancing our payments with international partners is a goal of both Democrats and Republicans. The United States exports a fraction of what it imports for creating electricity. However, the country does export over $694 million dollars of the metallurgic coal that is used for creating steel. Our largest partner is Brazil, where we export $120 million as part of our trade surplus of $4.3 billion in goods and $19 billion in services. The second largest export partner is the European Union, with US metallurgic exports of $265 million does help balance an overall trade deficit of $150 billion in goods, but a surplus of $50 billion in services. Coke, which is both the most expensive and most environmentally damaging to produce, is 2% of our total coal exports. A mixed story, our coal exports must be measured against other factors, such as health, water use and the job creation potential.

These factors make seeking coal jobs as a way to address our ailing communities a poor choice. Those states that are investing in energy efficiency, new sources of fuel and modernized infrastructure are creating more jobs, while lowering state costs and increasing healthy outcomes. Supporting such initiatives is a better and more direct route than trying to bring back a dying industry.