Coal mining jobs in Wyoming fell from 7,054 in 2008 to 5,756 in 2016. If neither of these numbers seems massive—it’s because they’re not. But for a state with no income tax, whose revenues are almost entirely dependent on the excise taxes charged on extraction industries, that 19 percent decline represented a matching hit to state coffers. After years in which the state filled “rainy day funds” to overflowing, Wyoming’s legislature found itself facing a $770 million shortfall in 2017. Wyoming legislators reluctantly tapped some of those savings to address the drops in revenue.
In fact, Wyoming’s absolute dependence on a single source of revenue, which has allowed it to be one of seven states with no income tax, keep sales tax low, and still have a generally high level of infrastructure, would seem to be a particularly dangerous position. It makes the state absolutely subject to the ups and down of a volatile energy market—and precariously positioned at a time when both renewable and cheaper natural gas are set to permanently dam Wyoming’s revenue stream.
But Donald Trump digs coal. So after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. After Trump dismantled the Clean Power Plan put in place by President Obama to reduce greenhouse gases. After Trump revoked the Stream Protection Rule allowing mine waste to be dumped directly into streams and rivers. After signalling a lax attitude to safety that saw a surge in coal mining deaths. And after an uptick in demand from China that brought up US coal exports.
After all that, just what did Wyoming get in return?
Wyoming coal companies only added five full-time jobs between the bottom of the bust in 2016 and last year, according the Wyoming State Mine Inspector’s annual report on the industry.
And what did continuing to depend on coal revenues cost the state?
The Joint Appropriations Committee drafted a budget bill last week that would put money back into some agencies hard-hit by previous cuts while also requiring Gov. Matt Mead to eliminate 50 state positions over two years.
The results in Wyoming only confirm what multiple studies, including one commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, had concluded—regulations were responsible for only a tiny percentage of coal’s decline. And coal jobs are not coming back.
While coal mining employment has been on the decline for decades – from a peak of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to 130,000 in 2011 – the pace of job loss over the past six years has been particularly dramatic. After campaigning on a promise to end what he called his predecessor’s “War on Coal,” President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in March 2017 ordering agencies to review or rescind a raft of Obama-era environmental regulations, telling coal miners they would be “going back to work.”
This paper offers an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal collapse, and then examines the prospects for a recovery of US coal production and employment by modeling the impact of President Trump’s executive order and assessing the global coal market outlook. In short, the paper finds ...
Increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic US coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand is responsible for 26 percent, and the growth in renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent. …
Implementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in US coal consumption, but only if natural gas prices increase going forward. If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.
Donald Trump does not dig coal. Miners dig coal. Donald Trump has another skill set—lying to miners about their future, and promoting policies that are putting states like Wyoming on the brink of disaster.
And before anyone starts to feel like at least those five jobs show that the industry as stabilized … don’t be too sure.
According to the Mining Association’s count last year, the coal industry lost more than 900 jobs during the downturn and about 300 returned. Whether those were part-time or counting contract jobs is less clear.
“I’m reluctant to get into how companies are adjusting,” [Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association] said. “I think you’ve seen some attrition, some retirements and some new jobs coming back.”
Reluctance is a good idea, since looking at how jobs were really counted might reveal that even those five jobs were just some creative accounting.