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Regulation isn’t killing Trump’s ‘clean, beautiful coal,’ the economy is

Donald Trump defends businesses such as this coal-fired power plants.

ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS

Among President Donald Trump's schemes to restore U.S. economic greatness perhaps none is more misguided than his pledge to put coal miners back to work.

"We will unleash the full power of American energy, ending job-killing restrictions on shale oil, natural gas and clean, beautiful coal," Mr. Trump told congressional Republicans at their recent annual retreat in Philadelphia.

Lawmakers cheered.

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"And we are going to put our coal miners back to work," he added.

The applause grew louder.

Good luck with that. Coal isn't clean, it isn't beautiful, and most compellingly, it is not economic. Powerful market forces – more so than the "job-killing" regulations Mr. Trump rails about – are unstoppably pushing the sooty fuel and its workers to extinction.

And no rational economic policies will bring those jobs back.

If he's serious, Mr. Trump would have to reopen dozens of shuttered coal-fired power plants, build new ones, reverse the shale gas revolution and double the price of natural gas. He would also have to sell a whole lot more U.S. coal to China – a country he seems intent on drawing into a nasty trade war. And finally, he would have to convince mining companies to replace self-driving trucks and robotic drillers with an army of diggers with pickaxes and wheelbarrows.

None of that would happen without billions of dollars in government subsidies.

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And if those dangerous and back-breaking jobs came back, would anyone want them?

The train has left the station – and it's not running on coal.

And increasingly nor are U.S. power plants. Coal's share of the electricity-generation market is on track to fall to less than a third in 2016, down from 52 per cent in 2000 and behind natural gas for the first time ever, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Massive amounts of coal-generated power capacity have been shut down in recent years. Five per cent of coal capacity closed in 2015, and the trend continued unabated last year.

Renewable sources of energy are also gaining ground – and not just because of Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan. The cost of large-scale solar and wind power projects has also come down dramatically. The market share of renewables in power generation is growing rapidly.

There is another, less discussed trend that will make Mr. Trump's jobs promise impossible to keep: automation.

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"Automation has been eating coal jobs over a long period of time – years before concerns about climate change led to the environmental regulations that President Trump solely blames for the industry's decline," policy analysts Devashree Saha and Sifan Liu of the Washington-based Brookings Institution argued in a recent paper.

The same technology trends evident in manufacturing are changing the way mining is done. The U.S. produced more coal in 2015 than it did in 1980 – but with almost 60 per cent fewer workers. More than 150,000 jobs have vanished over that period.

And the trend is gaining momentum. The days of soot-face underground miners are not coming back. The global mining industry is going high-tech in a big way, embracing self-driving haulers and loaders, along with autonomous drills, crushers, shovels and tunnel borers, according to a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg. The report concludes that automation will eliminate as much as 70 per cent of remaining mine jobs.

Another big job killer in the coal business is the shift from underground mining to mountaintop removal. These mines tend to be in Wyoming and Montana, concentrating job losses in the traditional coal mining states of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Just like his naive promises to Rust Belt factory workers, Mr. Trump's "clean, beautiful coal" narrative is giving false hope to coal miners.

And it's drawing attention from the more important debate about how to help displaced blue-collar workers. That's a discussion about education, training and transition assistance. It's also about creating new opportunities in expanding industries.

Worse, if Mr. Trump uses subsidies or protectionist measures to save coal mining jobs, he risks damaging the prospects of other, more promising industries.

Restoring a golden age of coal that never really was is a dangerous fantasy.

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