Considering how much he brags about his business acumen, shouldn’t Donald Trump do a better job of keeping up with economic trends? The “great” America he pines for preceded the advent of today’s globalized information age and the automation that rendered steelmaking a largely worker-free endeavor. Likewise, the Republican presidential nominee’s fossil-fueled ambitions make no sense in light of what’s up with energy and its tremendous labor consequences: The oil, gas and coal industries are heading toward obsolescence as green energy booms.
Since Trump enjoys talking about energy industries and their workers, his clueless declarations about them get lots of airtime and ink. Here’s one galling example: “The Obama-Clinton administration has blocked and destroyed millions of jobs through their anti-energy regulations,” Trump said in a Detroit speech. “The Obama-Clinton war on coal has cost Michigan over 50,000 jobs.”
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It’s hard to know where to start with this motherlode of lies, given that the United States produced more oil than Saudi Arabia and more natural gas than Russia last year, following massive growth for both fuels during the Obama administration. But here’s what’s amiss in that last line. The Trump campaign told Politifact that the Michigan assertion, which surely confused the locals in a state where the last coal mines closed in the 1950s, addressed the loss of potential employment opportunities from decisions not to build coal-fired power plants.
Politifact deemed the assertion false. “Market forces, not just environmental regulations, have driven many of the job losses in the coal sector,” the fact-checking outlet observed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were only 60,000 people employed at power plants in the entire country in 2014, so the notion that 50,000 Michiganders could have found those mythical jobs underscores Trump’s unpresidential habit of making up numbers to suit his whims.
I’ll get to those market forces shortly, after a quick review of pertinent US job statistics drawn from an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report released in late May. All told, according to the group, a total of 769,000 Americans were toiling for renewable energy businesses in 2015, including small-scale hydropower, biofuels, and geothermal. Here IRENA’s snapshot of energy employment by industry:
- Solar: 209,000 jobs
- Oil and gas extraction: 187,200 jobs
- Wind: 88,000 jobs
- Coal mining: 67,929 jobs
Interestingly, IRENA’s fossil-fuel employment figures are actually higher than the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Coal mining jobs have now dwindled further to 52,300. As for oil and gas extraction workers, there were only 172,700 of them in July. The BLS does not track wind and solar employment with the same regularity as oil, gas and coal jobs, but it did predict that wind turbine technician would be the nation’s fastest-growing profession through 2024. Renewable-energy jobs grew 6 percent last year, in stark contrast with an 18-percent decline in oil and gas employment, IRENA found.
The new energy paradigm that Trump either can’t or won’t accept has created a labor market where the solar power industry employs more US workers than oil and gas extraction. There are also more than three times as many solar workers as coal miners and the solar industry is growing at 12 times the speed of overall job creation. Green-energy job growth may keep going for decades. The share of power generated by renewable energy will triple to 44 percent from 14 percent by 2040, according to the latest Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast. In other words, this is no blip.
Furthermore, the Obama administration couldn’t do away with or prevent the creation of “millions” of jobs if it tried. These professions only employ tens and hundreds of thousands of workers.
About those market forces: Some 350,000 and gas workers around the world did lose their jobs between October 2014 and January 2016, including 100,000 here in the United States. That was due to price collapses, which caused oil and gas companies to suffer massive losses and, in many cases, go bankrupt. Trump calls for a yuuuuge boost in national fossil-fuel output, but it was a massive increase in US production that triggered the oversupply problems and sent prices into the doldrums. So a government policy intended to boost US production even more would not necessarily spur the creation of more oil and gas jobs.
Coal employment has also continued to implode, but that’s mostly because of coal’s eroding market share and the industry’s preference for mountaintop removal and other environmentally devastating techniques that require less labor. “Perhaps as President, Donald Trump will have his energy secretary restore coal jobs by requiring the coal industry to return to pick-and-shovel days,” suggested Tina Casey on the CleanTechnica website. Most big US coal companies, having declared bankruptcy, surely can’t afford to expand their payrolls that way.
Utilities are replacing coal with cheaper natural gas — no big climate win — and wind power. Increasingly, utility-scale solar is gaining traction too as the costs of solar panels have plunged, making renewable energy more competitive. Until now, battery technology has not progressed to the point where fossil-fuel backup systems seem unnecessary, but that too could change — with dire consequences for natural gas. So far, oil prices have been depressed by a global glut. If buoyant predictions about electric vehicle sales soaring in the 2020s prove true, it would bring about something else: a collapse in the demand for oil that would naturally undercut oil prices and employment.
Despite that important climate deal reached in Paris last year, carbon-cutting policies are not solely responsible for our nation’s new energy paradigm. President Barack Obama has taken some steps to expedite the transition to greener energy, but his Clean Power Plan is tied up in the courts and he failed to get a climate bill passed. In the wake of that legislative debacle, individual states retained plenty of leeway and the consequences, to say the least, are inconsistent. Oregon, which still gets 30 percent of its power from coal, has decided to wean itself off the stuff altogether within two decades. But Nevada has gone out of its way to squelch its own rooftop solar boom. While regulatory pressure on coal is real, the closures of coal-fired power plants seen so far have generally had more to do with public health woes, like asthma, environmental concerns unrelated to carbon pollution, and the competitive pressures posed by cheaper alternatives like natural gas, than climate action.
The rise and fall of specific energy jobs reflect the dynamics of their industries. Investment in US-generated renewable energy rose 17 percent to $44 billion last year as investment in fossil fuels fell. Renewable energy constituted just about all of the new electricity-generating capacity that came online in this country during the first quarter of 2016 as no new coal or nuclear generation entered the mix and additional natural gas capacity was negligible.
Meanwhile, more than 40 coal-fired power plants are slated to close in 2016, on top of the 94 that shut down last year.
One of the strangest things about Trump’s poor grasp of the energy business could be how it may distort his perceived chances of victory. Grilled about how he thinks he can win the White House without a traditional ground game as a growing number of Republicans back his opponent and his poll numbers droop, the real estate mogul counted coal miners among the constituencies he believes will deliver.
“We are gonna have tremendous turnout from the evangelicals, from the miners, from the people that make our steel, from people that are getting killed by trade deals, from people that have been just decimated, from the military who are with Trump 100 percent,” he told Eric Bolling in an early August Fox News interview. “I don’t know that we need to get out the vote.”