To say that in 2019 America produced less coal than it has in any year since 1978 is telling only part of the story. Because in 1978 coal mines across the country were engaged in a national miner’s strike—one in which the President Jimmy Carter was definitely on the wrong side of history in attempting to force miners back on the job through the courts. Ultimately, though the miners technically won in terms of getting what they wanted, they lost because the strike accelerated the focus of mining companies into western coal fields where they would eventually break the union by shutting out union miners from large new surface mines while idling smaller mines in the east.
But there was no miner’s strike in 2019. There was also no coronavirus pandemic, because that didn’t become a problem until after the first of the year. What the latest numbers from the Energy Information Administration show is an industry in rapid decline. A minor increase in 2017 has proven to be unsustainable, despite Donald Trump throwing the industry every possible assistance. Coal production declined 7% in 2019. And the data available so far shows that 2020 will be even worse for an industry that’s vanishing faster than anyone would have believed possible a decade ago. Electricity generated by coal in the U.S. fell to a 42-year low in 2019, decreasing over 15% in a single year. Since then it has fallen an amazing 34% in the last five months. That’s not 34% total, it’s 34% on top of the 15% decline last year.
The Powder River Basin in Wyoming continues to be the nation’s largest source of coal, producing almost 40% of the nation’s product. In Wyoming, a pair of huge mines there—one from Arch, the other from Peabody—together making up the majority of the state’s production. But the fact that those two companies, the nation’s largest coal companies and long-time fierce competitors, had to team up in the last year in an effort to reduce costs and retain control of a shrinking market shows how tenuous the industry has become. Production in Wyoming was down by 9% in 2019. What was once a steady stream of coal trains coming out of the Powder River Basin has become an increasingly ragged flow; one that is threatening to fall to a trickle in 2020.
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has voted to close the last coal-powered generating facility in the whole Four Corners region. The decision is an easy one, because even though replacing the coal plant with 100% renewable power will require a $1 billion investment, it will actually save ratepayers in the region more than $6 per month, while creating 1,000 construction jobs. That’s because at this point building new solar and wind facilities is actually cheaper than simply maintaining existing coal plants. That kind of economics is why New Mexico isn’t alone actually being ahead of targets to move to renewable power.
The New Mexico decision follows just months after Arizona closed the Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona. That plant was the last coal-fired plant in the state, and it was fed by the state’s last coal mine. Now both are gone. Instead, visitors to the Navajo Nation will find a huge new solar facility that produces power for 13,000 homes.
Even in states long associated with coal production, the plants are closing. At what was once the largest coal powered generating plant in the world, Paradise Steam Plant in western Kentucky, the last of three huge turbines has made the switch to natural gas. That switch means that Paradise will still produce greenhouse gases, but it will no longer generate millions of tons of coal ash for the surrounding communities, or throw out a plume of both mercury and uranium that reaches a thousand miles to the sea.
The declining cost of renewables also means that what coal companies once viewed as the industry’s savior—exported coal—is also in decline. Coal exports were actually down 29% in the first five months of 2020. Companies have actually dropped several of the efforts to build export facilities as overseas markets evaporate even faster than those in the United States.
The industry crash also means that the efforts to save coal through “next generation” plants has completely crumbled. It’s been almost three years since what was supposed to be the nation’s first “clean coal” plant announced that it would not burn coal at all, ending a $6 billion experiment in failure. And on Tuesday, the only remaining commercial scale clean coal project in the United States was cancelled. As Oilprice.com reports, Petra Nova, which was supposed to capture carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant near Houston, has been “mothballed.” There is another project out there—North Dakota’s “Project Tundra”—but it exists only on paper and is unlikely to ever move forward.
As with many industries, coal mining employment has fallen sharply during the pandemic, but even before COVID-19 made the news, mining jobs were already in a steep decline.
Back in 2017, as he was signing an order scrapping regulations and allowing coal companies to openly bribe foreign governments, The Washington Post reported on his ecstatic support for coal. “We’re bringing back jobs, big league,” said Trump. “We’re bringing them back at the plant level. We’re bringing them back at the mine level. The energy jobs are coming back.”
None of that happened. The plants are gone. The mines are gone. The industry is going. Despite everything he did to make coal profitable and everything he’s done to stand in the way of renewable energy, Donald Trump has utterly failed. And this is one failure we should all be applauding.