Mitt Romney Can’t Bring Coal Jobs Back

The state of the universe.
Oct. 22 2012 11:41 AM

Mitt Romney's Coal Complex

The GOP candidate’s distortions, flip-flops, and bad jokes about energy.

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Goodness, we have come a long way from the day the Coal and Climate Chameleon stood before a coal plant in Salem, Mass., and declared, “That plant kills people."

It's no wonder that the CEO of James River Coal Company says, "I had a dream the other day that Mitt Romney won the election and appointed Jim Inhofe as administrator of the EPA."

For him it's a dream. For us, it's a nightmare.

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Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of implementing environmental policies that have killed off coal production and coal jobs. In reality, coal production in the United States has been fairly flat since 1989, a period that has included Republican and Democratic administrations. In recent years, the lack of growth in demand for coal almost certainly has more to do with competition from cheap, hydrofracked natural gas, which is also the main factor (together with the sluggish economy) for the moderation in growth of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions.

From all of Romney's weepy concern about the jobs of coal miners, you'd think that coal mining was a major engine of American job creation. In fact, coal-mining jobs have been in steady decline for decades. In 1920, coal mining accounted for 1.3 percent of the U.S. labor force. It declined steadily to under .06 percent of the labor force by 2008, largely because of technology—one guy can move a whole lot of coal by ripping into a strip mine with a giant scoop or scraping off the top of a mountain in a mountain-top-removal mine. These are the very technologies, environmentally destructive though they are, that free market forces have favored. Any substantial increase in coal mining jobs would require substantial interference in the free markets Romney professes to love—including somehow subsidizing coal so it could compete with currently cheap natural gas.

To put those jobs numbers in perspective, there are around 83,000 people employed in coal mining today. You could roughly double that if you added in people employed in transporting coal and burning it in power plants, but those people would be equally well-employed if they were transporting other energy-related products, and power plants will employ people regardless of what fuel is used to produce the power. By way of comparison, there are currently 647,200 people employed driving buses, and the number is projected to increase by 83,000 by the year 2020—an amount equal to the total employed in coal mining.

For that matter, the number of hairdressing jobs is projected to increase by more than 100,000 in the same time frame. A growing economy investing in the energy and efficiency technologies of the 21st century could easily absorb all of the employment in coal mining many times over, and provide jobs where people are not in daily danger of mine disasters. Romney may look like he's weeping for the miners, but it's really the profits of the Massey Energys and the Koch brothers of the world that he holds near and dear.

President Obama's progress on climate change during his first term has been disappointing, and even he has been all too quick to defend his record with disingenuous statements about what he has done for the coal industry. His environmental policies cannot be blamed for the continued stagnation of U.S. coal production, but the fact is that if we are going to really come to grips with the climate problem, coal production will need to start going down, with the lost energy being offset by efficiency measures and low-carbon energy production.

Nonetheless, Obama's accomplishments have been real and substantive, including appointing first-rate scientists to advisory positions, supporting EPA regulation of power plant emissions, crafting improved automobile efficiency regulations, backing more energy-efficient transport systems, and fostering the renewable-energy industry. With his greater recognition of the urgency of the climate problem and his greater experience in foreign policy, he is better placed than Romney to take on the formidable task of engaging China and India in cooperative efforts at emissions reductions. As expanded natural gas supplies continue to cut into domestic demand for U.S. coal, the next big fight will be over vastly expanded coal exports to Asia, and it will make the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline look like a minor skirmish. I know who I want on my side in that fight, and it is not the coal industry's dream candidate.

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He was a lead author of the IPCC Third Assessment Report and is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. He writes episodically for RealClimate.org.