In the late 1970s, fresh out of high school and keen to finance a university degree, I spent a year in mining camps in Northern Ontario and Northern Manitoba. I remember great heaping portions of potatoes and steak in the mess halls, shower water that ran yellow with sulphur, and armies of young men. In those days, mining was back-breaking work that required lots of employees doing lots of walking, shovelling, pushing, drilling, driving and fixing.
Three years ago, I visited Dundee Precious Metals' Chelopech gold and copper mine in Bulgaria, and I couldn't believe the difference from my teenage year in the hole. The WiFi-enabled underground mine was an automated technological wonder. Thanks to machines and real-time data, output per employee has tripled since Dundee took over in 2003. Those productivity gains are why tech-savvy mines around the world are getting rid of people. The old jobs are never coming back—ever—even if production soars.
Which brings us to U.S. President Donald Trump. States where coal is king—Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky—voted heavily for him last November. He vowed to revive a moribund industry and put miners back to work. "We're bringing [coal] back, and we're bringing it back fast," the Orange One assured voters.
And how would he do that? By diluting or killing the environmental regulations forcing mining companies and other big polluters to clean up their acts.
Trump's various wars—on regulation of all types, on migrants, on global trade and so on—have the power to inflict enormous damage on the liberal democratic order. But the fallout from most of these wars could be contained if he is voted out of office in 2020 or if the House of Representatives and the Senate turn Democratic in 2018's midterm elections.
The war on environmental regulation, however, has the potential to produce lasting damage, even if Trump and the Republican Congress are sent packing. Waterways and forests poisoned by mining waste cannot be magically restored. Power plants given fresh licence to spew out pollutants and carbon dioxide cannot be scrubbed up quickly or cheaply if the rules are tightened up again. Animals that go extinct if Trump dilutes the Endangered Species Act won't become unextinct if the act is restored.
On the coal front, one of Trump's very first acts as president was to sign a repeal of the Stream Protection Rule—a "job-destroying" regulation (his words) passed during the Barack Obama era. In essence, the rule said coal companies could no longer wreck streams by tossing debris into valleys after ripping the tops off mountains to expose coal seams. But the Republican-controlled Congress quickly passed the repeal in February.
Trump's next target may be Obama's Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants (many of them coal-fired) by 32% from the 2005 level by 2030. If the plan is killed, the carbon-reduction commitment America made at the 2015 Paris climate change conference would fall apart, rendering the whole Paris Agreement rather pointless, since the United States is the world's second-biggest carbon emitter.
One of the great myths of Trump's deregulation crusade is that it will produce jobs. Employment in the American coal industry has been declining for more than three decades, but the slide has had little to do with regulation, and everything to do with automation and competition from vast quantities of cheap U.S. shale gas, the preferred fuel of the new fleet of electricity-generating plants.
In recent years, the fall in the number of coal miners has exceeded the decline in production. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal industry employment dropped 12% in 2015 to 65,971 workers, while production fell 10.3% to 900 milllion tons, a three-decade low. That's because hourly production per employee climbed by 5.4%. The machines will keep the productivity gains intact.
How many jobs did the Stream Protection Rule itself kill off? Precisely zero. The rule was passed in the dying days of the Obama administration and had yet to come into effect.
The gutting of environmental regulation could even destroy American jobs by slowing the transition to renewable energy, which has been an employment machine. The International Renewable Energy Agency reported the workforce in the U.S. solar business alone expanded at 12 times the overall job creation rate in 2015.
Trump's new man at the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma attorney general, sued the agency more than a dozen times. Pruitt is convinced environmental regulations are the enemy of employment. As the environment gets dirtier, he and his boss will be proved wrong.