Posted by: maboulette | March 30, 2017

Trump Pulled Apart Obama’s Climate Change Efforts to Save Coal Jobs Already Lost to Automations


mining

In Decatur, Ill., far from the coal mines of Appalachia, Caterpillar engineers are working on the future of mining: mammoth haul trucks that drive themselves.

REMOVING PEOPLE FROM DIGGING FOR COAL

The trucks have no drivers, not even remote operators. Instead, the 850,000-pound vehicles rely on self-driving equipment, the latest in an increasingly autonomous line of trucks and drills that is removing some of the human element from digging for coal.

MINERS REMNANTS OF THE PAST

When President Trump moved on Tuesday to pull apart the Obama administration’s climate change efforts, he promised it would bring coal-mining jobs back to America. But the jobs he is talking about — hardy miners in mazelike tunnels with picks and shovels — has steadily become remnants of the past.

COAL IS IN A DECLINE

Pressured by cheap and abundant natural gas, coal is in a precipitous decline, now making up just a third of electricity generation in the United States. Renewables are fast becoming competitive with coal on price. Electricity sales are trending downward, and coal exports are falling.

coalmining1

REPLACING WORKERS

All the while, the coal industry has been replacing workers with machines and explosives. Energy and labor specialists say that no one — including Mr. Trump — can bring them all back.

“People think of coal mining as some 1890s, colorful, populous frontier activity, but it’s much better to think of it as a high-tech industry with far fewer miners and more engineers and coders,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

TECH CHANGES

“The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes, not to mention the price of natural gas or renewables,” Mr. Muro said. “Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers.”

ESTIMATING EMPLOYMENT

Estimating the employment gains and losses from moves to regulate greenhouse emissions has become a political exercise.

AVERAGE LOSS

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed carbon regulations, warned that former President Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan would lead to an average loss of more than 200,000 American jobs each year through 2030 — a wildly overstated projection, energy and labor specialists say.

VOWED TO DISMANTLE

The Obama-era plan, the effort Mr. Trump has vowed to dismantle, would have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants, frozen construction of new plants and replaced them with vast new wind and solar farms. Mr. Obama had pledged as part of the Paris climate pact that the United States would cut its emissions about 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, and carrying out the Clean Power Plan was vital to meeting that target.

ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS

Environmental groups have given bold estimations of their own, arguing that jobs related to clean energy and energy efficiency would increase under the plan — by as many as 274,000 through 2020, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, estimated that the plan would lead to a gain of as many as 80,000 jobs by 2020.

NONE OF THESE HAVE BEEN TESTED

None of those estimates have even begun to be tested. The power plan from the Obama administration had not been put into effect because it had been blocked by the Supreme Court.

PART OF THE PROBLEM

Part of the difficulty in forecasting the employment fallout is the many variables involved:

  • Prices of coal and gas;
  • Projected growth;
  • Cost of renewable energy;
  • Jobs generated by energy efficiencies.

Even coal executives remain hushed in their optimism about the Clean Power Plan rollback, which they say is nowhere near enough to return coal to its main branch atop power markets and put tens of thousands of coal miners to work.

THE TECHNOLOGY

Caterpillar’s autonomous trucks are already being used at mines in Western Australia. “An autonomous truck doesn’t need to stop for lunch breaks or shift changes, and can work 24 hours a day” Caterpillar said in a promotional page on its website. And it is proceeding with semiautonomous drills, including a system that lets one worker control three drills at once.

coalmining

UNDERGROUND TO SURFACE

The shift from underground coal mines to surface mines — which comprises opening mountains using controlled explosions, then using automated heavy machinery to mine the coal — has also led to a decline in mining jobs.

MINERS HAVE DROPPED

In 1980, the industry employed about 242,000 people. By 2015, that figure had plunged 60% to fewer than 100,000, even as coal production moved up 8%. Helped by automation, worker productivity more than tripled over the same period, according to data from the federal Energy Information Administration and the Brookings Institution.

40 TO 80 PERCENT

And a recent study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment forecast that automation was likely to replace 40 to 80% of workers at mines.

SAFE, EFFICIENT AND PRODUCTIVE

Automation makes mines more “safe, efficient and productive,” said Corrie Scott, a Caterpillar spokeswoman. “While mines would not need as many drivers, they will need more people who use and understand the latest technology,” she said.

“However way you spin it, gas and renewables are going to continue to replace coal,” said Nicolas Maennling, senior economics and policy researcher at Columbia University and an author of the automation study.

“And in order to stay competitive, coal will have to increase automation,” he said. “What Mr. Trump does will make little difference.”

Nothing is going to be worse than how these Trump supporters are going to feel when the truth about automation and miners jobs comes to the surface.

 

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