Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Our Energy “Made in China”?Trump, Coal, and the Future of American Energy

By Dylan NezajPublished May 6, 2018

Amidst China’s continuing efforts to achieve the status of a global economic superpower, the Trump administration is focusing its efforts on reinvigorating a dying coal industry. In so doing, Trump is further enabling China to outcompete and surpass the US as the leader in the development of the energy sources of the future.

China leads the world in investment in renewable energies, having tripled investments made by the U.S. in 2017. Meanwhile, President Trump is working to frame “beautiful, clean coal,” oxymoronic as it may be, as an environmentally friendly and economically viable energy source of the future, all while ignoring the simple truth that market trends have deemed coal an increasingly costly and inefficient means of energy production. In so doing, Trump, attempting to shore up a vulnerable and desperate subset of his base, has time and time again proven his defiance of scientific consensus on climate change, of basic market economics, and of the vast majority of the American public. In every single congressional district in the U.S. – even those in coal country – a majority of Americans believes that greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants should be reduced.

A study by Stanford University summarizes the factors that have contributed to the decline in coal jobs since the 1970s, and of the coal industry as a whole since 2010. Trump tends to scapegoat the Obama administration’s efforts to curb pollution for the industry’s decline. However, President Nixon probably did more to kill coal through the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970. This law, in conjunction with the deregulation of railroads, made it so that older, less-efficient plants in the eastern U.S. struggled to compete with more efficient, heavily-automated efficient mines in the west. Also, because hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has made natural gas more economical, an increasing number of coal plants are being retired or reconfigured for natural gas burning. Coal production peaked overall in 2010, though coal employment had already been on a downward trend since production shifted to, and grew in, the more labor-lean west. This demonstrates that most of the decline in coal jobs since the 1970s was due to competition within the American coal industry, which is now being backed by Trump in a losing battle with cheaper, more abundant natural gas and a growing renewables sector.

While Trump has withdrawn the federal government from its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, China is well on its way to overshooting its emissions targets as it transitions away from coal. China understands the need to reduce reliance on coal, as do India, Brazil, and every other nation still adhering to the Paris Climate Agreement. Xi’s regime, seeking to expand its economic influence into developing regions throughout the world, is capitalizing on the vacuum left by the U.S. government under Trump, catering to increasing demand for renewables by accelerating the development of such technologies within China’s borders. CNN reports that China already produces two-thirds of the world’s solar panels, and its government plans to invest $367 billion in renewables by 2020, adding 10 million jobs to an industry of 3.5 million. If this trend is not met with sufficient investment by the U.S., it will not be able to compete in a rising market of billions of people as India, Brazil, and most other nations, continue their transition away from a dependence on coal and other fossil fuels to meet their energy needs.

            Trump either doesn’t understand these facts, attesting to his ineptitude, or nefariously ignores them, attesting to his depravity. He is pandering to an industry of 50,000, slowing the progress of an industry that already employs almost 700,000 and will inevitably lead to the growth of a clean energy industry that already employs more than 3 million, according to figures provided by the Department of Energy. Furthermore, the share of U.S. energy production accounted for by renewables (including solar, wind, hydro and thermal) is 15 percent and rising, whereas that of coal is 30 percent and falling; the Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas – which currently accounts for about 34 percent of electricity production – will only last us about 90 more years. While Trump may claim that his efforts led to a rise in coal exports in 2017, this was largely due to short-term substitution for American exports caused by a hurricane in Australia that reduced its exports of metallurgical coal to…China. Indeed it appears that in due time, the only use for coal will be metallurgical, though Trump’s coal mining supporters remain optimistic.

These people deserve not to be lied to; they deserve a more promising future. They were integral in fueling America’s rise to power, and the transition to a green economy will be harder for them than anyone, as coal mining is ingrained in their way of life. Nonetheless, just like telegraph operators, coal miners will not be in high demand any longer, and while some semblance of a career still exists for many of them, we must provide them an education that repays them for their contributions and enables them to compete in the economy of tomorrow.

A renewable-energy dominated economy is our future – the world’s future. It is not a matter of if, but when. Coal is dying, there is nothing that Donald Trump and his administration can do about it, and by refusing to embrace this reality, Trump and Pruitt are crippling the U.S.’ competitiveness in the rising renewable energy sector and jeopardizing the health of our planet by delaying the energy transition. Rather than put a dying industry on life support, the government must make education and renewable-energy investments among its top priorities, surpassing those made by China and making the U.S. the most competitive producer of renewable-energy technologies for an emerging market of billions. China has an economic initiative that will lead to it usurping the U.S. as the global economic superpower, but just as the U.S. must retaliate against unfair trade practices, we must compete and excel in the development of renewables and retake the title as the global leader in renewable energy innovation. Trump should want American solar panels and American turbines to fuel our civilization, lest the world’s energy also be “Made in China.”

Works Cited

Image credits: Allianz