Mitchell’s Musings 4-17-17: Coal, Seriously
Daniel J.B. Mitchell
One byproduct of the 2016 presidential campaign was the attention paid to the plight of coal miners. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump promised to bring back employment in coal by lifting federal regulations, pulling out of agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions, etc. So what are the prospects for bringing back jobs in coal, now that he is in office?
Below is a chart showing the trend in employment in the coal mining industry (NAICS 2121). The numbers include all jobs in that sector, not just coal miners, through March 2017. As can be seen, the trend over the long term is down, but with an interim period of stabilization or actual increase from about 2000 to 2012. After that point, jobs generally declined and now seem at a plateau of around 50,000 reached in 2016 and into 2017. U.S. coal production peaked at about 1.2 billion tons in 2008. It declined precipitously in recent years and was down to 739 million tons in 2016.
Coal Employment, 000s
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Of course, another well-known pledge of candidate Trump was to build a 2,000 mile wall along the US-Mexico border. Although no funds have been appropriated for such a wall, the federal government has solicited preliminary bids. In keeping with the spirit of wall building and solicitations, I made a humorous Modest Proposal on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that two objectives – bringing back coal mining jobs and building the wall - could be achieved IF the wall were to be built from coal. Note additionally that even though the current administration doesn’t care much about greenhouse gas, my proposal would not involve burning the coal and thus emissions from the coal needed for the wall would be limited. The only emissions would be the indirect consequences of mining and transporting the coal.
As it turns out, however, my facetious proposal has a use. It is illustrative of why it would be difficult to produce a lot of new jobs in the coal mining industry. Let’s do a little calculation. Apparently, the wall is supposed to be 30 feet high. So let’s suppose we piled up coal in a triangular form on a 30-foot base. A cross section of the triangular coal pile would have a square area of 450 square feet (30x30/2). The wall is 2,000 miles long, so to convert its length into feet, we multiply 2,000 miles by 5,280 feet per mile and get 10,560,000 feet. When we multiply 10,560,000 feet by 450 square feet, we get a wall containing 4,752,000,000 cubic feet of coal.
Now we need to know how many cubic feet a ton of coal occupies. Coal varies in type and density. One number that seemed to repeat on the web, however, was that a ton of coal requires something like 40 cubic feet, so let’s go with that estimate. Dividing 4,752,000,000 cubic feet by 40 gives us 118,800,000 tons of coal needed for the wall. Total U.S. production last year, as noted earlier, was 739,000,000 tons. So if we bought all the coal needed for the wall in one year, it would raise that year’s coal demand by 16%. If coal jobs rose proportionately to output, we are talking about a one-time jump of 8,000 coal jobs.
OK. Let’s make it clear that I am not advocating a wall of coal. But what I am doing is pointing to the fact that even a giant wall of coal running along the U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t produce a lot of coal jobs. Coal employment fell from 2015 to 2016 by over 13,000 jobs. So the temporary boost of 8,000 coal jobs would be less than that one-year drop. In short, trends in coal prices (and of the prices of other energy commodities) and world demand are more likely to dictate what happens to coal employment than any change in federal policy.