On Tuesday, March 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold its final public listening session on the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), an Obama-era regulation that sought to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.
Originally, the agency had only scheduled one public hearing on the planned repeal, which took place in West Virginia in late November. By holding the hearing in the heart of Appalachia, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said that the agency wanted to hear from the people “most impacted by the CPP.”
Eventually — facing public outcry about the lack of public hearings on the repeal — the EPA added three more listening sessions, in Kansas City, San Francisco, and Gillette, Wyoming. But if the EPA’s public listening tour began in a place that represents coal’s history, it’s concluding the tour in a place that represents coal’s future — for better or for worse.
Big mines but few jobs
Gillette, Wyoming, is located in the heart of the Powder River Basin, a 19,500-square mile geological basin that stretches from northeastern Wyoming to southeastern Montana and contains an estimated 162 billion short tons of recoverable coal resources. In 2015, 45 percent of the coal produced in the United States came from just 16 mines located in Wyoming and Montana.
In repealing the Clean Power Plan, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have promised to return coal mining jobs to areas like Appalachia, which have been hit hard by the decade’s long decline in the coal industry. But the Powder River Basin — which now supplies more coal than Appalachia — hints at why those promises will be so difficult to keep.
Unlike coal mining in Appalachia, which usually takes place in underground mines, coal reserves in the Powder River Basin are typically found in large seams close to the surface. Because the coal is so close to the surface, mines that excavate in the Powder River Basin rely on huge machines known as a mobile dragline excavator, which strips away soil and rock on top of the coal seams and then scoops coal onto dump trucks.
This is mining that relies heavily on machinery, meaning it requires coal companies to hire fewer workers to complete the job — part of why, according to Washington Post figures, despite producing 45 percent of the country’s coal, the Powder River Basin’s 16 largest mines account for just 10 percent of the country’s coal jobs.
Automation has plagued the coal industry for decades. According to a Brookings Institute analysis of coal job and production numbers, despite seeing the number of coal mining jobs fall by 59 percent between 1980 and 2015, coal production grew by 8 percent. And the amount of coal extracted per hour rose considerably over the same time period, from 1.93 short tons per miner hour in 1980 to 6.28 short tons per miner hour in 2015.
The rise in coal production and coal mining productivity mirrors a shift in regional coal production. Between 1980 and 2015, underground mining’s share of total coal production fell from 41 percent to 35 percent, while surface mining — which includes strip mining and mountaintop removal mining — grew from 59 percent to 65 percent.
And automation in the coal sector is only expected to increase as technology — like autonomous vehicles, which would replace the need for human-operated drivers at mining sites — evolves. According to a 2016 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, automation will likely replace between 40 and 80 percent of mine workers.
All of this means that while repealing the Clean Power Plan might cause a modest increase in demand for coal-fired electricity, more demand won’t necessarily translate to more coal jobs, even in places like Wyoming.
“The Trump Administration’s efforts to champion coal haven’t been successful in bringing coal back, and cutting the Clean Power Plan won’t save coal jobs and communities,” Powder River Basin Resource Council board member Gillian Malone said in a press statement. “Market forces are responsible for these declines, and we need to start focusing on the economic opportunities renewable energy is already creating for Wyoming by developing the technology and skills we need to participate in this new energy market.”
Obstacles to export
Repealing the Clean Power Plan will also do little to help coal companies in the Powder River Basin get their coal to overseas markets. In March 2017 — right after Trump signed an executive order directing the EPA to begin repealing the Clean Power Plan — the mayor of Gillette told NPR that automation in the coal industry “probably will put more coal miners out of work.”
But, she noted, “if we open up this market to the rest of the world and they need more and more coal, there will be plenty of jobs in the near future.”
Opening up the Powder River Basin to other markets, however, has proven extremely difficult for coal companies.
The most economic route for coal from mines in Wyoming or Montana to markets in Asia runs through the port cities along the West coast, which have been resolute in their opposition to coal export terminals. In 2011 — at the height of proposed coal export terminals throughout the Pacific Northwest — there were six proposals for projects in Oregon and Washington that, cumulatively, could have shipped more than 100 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia. Today, just one of those proposals remains — and it faces an uncertain future after receiving multiple permit denials from state officials in Washington.
Coupled with years of declining coal use in China — spurred by a national air pollution campaign — local opposition to coal exports along the West Coast paints a bleak future for Powder River Basin coal, even if the Clean Power Plan is repealed.
A bleak future
Based on a preliminary list of speakers released by the EPA, it appears as though the public hearing in Gillette will feature a steady string of voices likely in support of repealing the Clean Power Plan, from representatives from Cloud Peak Energy — the only coal company to operate solely in the Powder River Basin — to Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who has vocally opposed regulations on the coal industry.
If the EPA’s final hearing in Gillette is anything like its first hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, the grim reality facing the United States coal industry will remain on the periphery as opponents of environmental regulation instead point to the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” long used by the fossil fuel industry as a political scapegoat for coal’s decline.
But like in Appalachia, the future for coal in the Powder River Basin remains bleak. Last year, despite Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda, Wyoming added just five coal mining jobs, and things don’t look much better in the near future: In 2018, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that coal production will decline by almost 5 percent.
“With or without the Clean Power Plan, coal continues to fall behind cleaner energy options like wind and solar as the cheapest way to make electricity,” Mike Scott, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told ThinkProgress via email. “The Clean Power Plan would have provided a predictable, orderly transition schedule for coal communities. Without it, they are left to the whims of the market forces that are driving coal plants to sudden retirement across the country.”
More than a year removed from the Obama administration’s climate policies, it’s becoming more and more difficult to pin the continued decline of coal on environmental regulations. As the EPA wraps up public hearings and speeds towards an official repeal of the Clean Power Plan, lofty promises to bring back coal jobs look set to collide with a familiar antagonist of the Trump administration: facts.