Coal has become a distressed industry in recent years – and Donald Trump’s election has not stopped the decline.
But most of its problems are not about a green attack on the fossil fuel industry; they are because natural gas prices have plunged, largely thanks to fracking, making it a far more economic option for electricity generators.
Coal production held steady at around 1,000 million tons a year from 2000 to 2012, but since then it has fallen by about a quarter. In 2018 it was 755 million tons. And since 2010, more than 240 mines have closed or announced they will close.
In many cases the power plants they were supplying went first, closed by a combination of cheaper natural gas, and pollution regulations putting up their operating costs.
Coal is now responsible for a quarter of electricity generation, compared to 35% by natural gas. In 2008, almost 45% of electricity came from coal.
Efforts by the Trump administration to reverse pollution regulations have had little net effect, because of the continuing low cost of natural gas.
As a result three out of the four largest mining firms went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015 and 2016; the remaining one, Cloud Peak Energy declared it this year.
In terms of jobs, the decline has been less pronounced, but in 2016 the number of miners hit the lowest level since records began, at 50,500. It is now 52,900. According to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, 28,000 people are employed in coal-fired power stations.
Railroads, which carry almost all the coal in the country, are also significant employers, although they have diversified revenues thanks to the shale oil and fracking boom.
The coal industry’s concentration in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Wyoming and Alabama has given it huge political muscle in those states and in Republican politics,with Pennsylvania’s miners seen as one of the forces behind Trump’s 2016 victory. His campaign took advantage of Hillary Clinton saying she wanted to put miners out of jobs to make inroads into what were traditionally Democratic heartlands.
The majority of coal jobs are east of the Mississippi but the majority of production is now west of it.
The industry’s attempt to survive in recent years has seen it step up exports, largely to Europe, but it has been hit by west coast states preventing the movement of export coal through their railroads and ports.