Pittsburgh Not Paris: The Cost of Choosing Coal

Julie Dostal '19
(she/her/hers)
Features Editor

 Photo courtesy of Business Insider.

Photo courtesy of Business Insider.

During his campaign, President Trump promised to put American coal miners back to work. The reversal of decades-long decline in coal production was the central tenant of Trump’s environmental policy. As a Pennsylvanian, this promise left me anxious and angry. Coal was foundational to the success of the Pennsylvania economy, from settlers’ first discovery of the resource in 1791 into the present day. Pennsylvania is the third-highest coal-producing state and the only state still producing anthracite coal. Anthracite coal mining dominates the eastern side of the state, while bituminous coal mines provide employment to thousands living on the western side of Pennsylvania. Coal in Pennsylvania was and, for many, still is the way of life. Thus, the promises of President Trump to reinvigorate the coal industry and put miners back to work in my home state contributed to it going red in 2016 for the first time in six elections. Based on these promises, the fading coal communities of Pennsylvania and other states like it cast their ballots with dreams of the past in mind. But President Trump’s promises were an illusion. 

In June of this year, President Trump announced his decision to leave the Paris Climate Accords stating, “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” To the city of Pittsburgh, the comment was an affront, but to the generational coal mining towns of Western Pennsylvania, it rang with a tone of salvation. Since the inauguration, one new coalmine has opened in Pennsylvania. The Acosta Deep Mine, located an hour east of Pittsburgh in Jennerstown, PA, employs about seventy people. The mine aims to be open fifteen years and will serve an economically depressed community still reeling from the unprecedented decline in the coal industry. But in many ways, this hope is a false one. The Acosta Deep Mine, similar to many of the additional of mines planning to open in West Virginia, Ohio, Alabama, and Wyoming, will extract metallurgical coal. “Met” coal is a special type of coal used in steelmaking. The price of “met” coal is currently at an all time high, due to astronomical demand from China and disruptions in key supply chains from Australia, the leading producer of “met” coal. Favorable market conditions for “met” coal are independent from the Trump Administration’s environmental policies and may change at any time.  

One may posit that the repeal of Obama Administration regulations on coal and coal-fired power plants may be enough to save the coal industry. Yet it only takes a road trip through Pennsylvania to know these rollbacks on past environmental policies will not be enough to save communities long dependent on coal. While President Obama’s EPA aggressively regulated the coal industry, no regulation could have affected the industry in a manner as severe as the introduction of natural gas into the market. The fracking industry is booming, powering electrical grids with inexpensive natural gas. Consumers prefer the cheaper prices, and natural gas surpassed coal for the first time this year as the largest source of electricity in the country. A recent Columbia University study found that regulations accounted for approximately 3.5 percent of coal’s decline, while natural gas accounted for around 49 percent. The changing energy industry foreshadows the likely failure of the Trump Administration to fulfill the campaign pledges that so many Pennsylvanians, and other Americans, are desperately waiting to come to fruition. 

What does the failure of the coal industry mean in the long term? Coal production experienced a swift decline, reaching an all time low in 2015. The impacts of this depression are still devastating many communities in the United States. 40,000 miners lost their jobs. Suicide rates skyrocketed. Opioids are commonplace to numb the realities of unemployment. Businesses dependent on the presence of laborers in mining towns shuttered their doors. Aging miners floundered in the face of a job search for a profession not involving coal. The thought of not continuing a familiar or regional legacy of coal mining is an afterthought. To Pennsylvanians, coal was the past, present, and future. So how can American environmental and energy policy move forward to counteract what seems to be the eventual, yet inevitable death of the coal industry? The answer may be found in the rapidly evolving policies of the world’s leading polluter, the People’s Republic of China.

Perhaps the most prominent signatory of the Paris Climate Change Accords, the Chinese government signaled an unprecedented pivot away from its coal-based economy. For decades, China has depended on coal as its primary source of energy. Coal still makes up the largest part of China’s energy consumption. The coal industry has provided generations of Chinese citizens with employment and financial security. In many cities across China’s northern and western regions, coal signifies a way of life. The sentiments expressed by Chinese miners regarding their reliance on the coal industry differ very little from the testimonials of Pennsylvanians or West Virginians concerning the centrality of coal in their everyday lives. These communities have also experienced similar economic downturn over the past five years resulting in widespread unemployment and looming concerns about the future of such communities.

In response to growing distress over the future of Chinese coal mining, the government in Beijing took action. Instead of empowering the coal industry further, the Chinese government shuttered coalmines and set out plans to cut roughly 1.3 million jobs in the industry. It also moved to restrict the construction of new coal power plants. In January, China’s National Energy Administration set its first ever target for reducing coal energy consumption. While the decision to transition away from coal warms my environmentalist heart, the Chinese government was not necessarily “thinking green” in the traditional sense. Rather, the People’s Republic of China chose to aggressively pursue renewable energy, believing in the future economic payout of the burgeoning market. 

At the beginning of 2017, the Chinese government pledged to invest 367 billion dollars in renewable power generation—solar, wind, and nuclear—by 2020. The pledge may be a result of the considerable economic benefits experienced by the Chinese since entering into the realm of renewable energy. China currently produces 2/3 of the world’s solar panels and nearly half of the world’s wind turbines. The clean energy sector currently boasts 3.5 million jobs, while 10 million more are anticipated as a result of the continued investment into renewable power. China’s solar power sector alone employs 2.5 million, while the solar sector in the United States provides employment for 260,000 Americans. The Chinese regions experiencing the greatest growth in jobs from solar panel production in 2016 were those formerly dependent on coal. The Chinese government has developed new solar panel technology to help service the depressed former coal communities. Just this year, Sungrow Power Supply, a Chinese solar company, constructed a floating solar energy farm. Covering approximately 100 square miles, the farm provides power to 15,000 homes and rests atop the flooded area that was once the location of a coal-mining factory.

In the face of a declining coal industry, China turned towards renewables. This pivot in policy had immediate effects on the global market.  The solar power sector in China is so productive and inexpensive, the United States was forced to place tariffs on the import of Chinese made solar panels in a bid to protect American producers. The future promises much of the same failure for the United States to compete with China’s renewable exports. As China continues to build its renewable sector, America falls further behind. As former Chinese coal miners try their luck at new solar panel or wind turbine manufacturing factories, American coal miners sit idle waiting on the impossible promises of President Trump.  

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jpd5pd@virginia.edu