Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
President Trump’s latest executive order on energy policy seeks to fulfill what he repeatedly promised during his campaign rallies: “A lot of people are going to be put back to work, a lot of coal miners are going back to work. The miners are coming back.” Understandably, laid-off and underemployed miners in Appalachian hollows like to hear this message — but few of them will actually be hired. Robert Murray, chief executive of the country’s largest privately held coal-mining company, put it bluntly: “He can’t bring them back.”
This reality has almost nothing to do with government’s preferences or orders: The retreat from American coal mining was not caused by President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations or by any ideological dislike of the fuel that provided the energy foundations of modern civilization. The history of energy use is a sequence of transitions to sources that are cheaper, cleaner and more flexible.
Size of the markets and technical imperatives make these transitions relatively slow, but the process is inexorable. That is why coal displaced wood and charcoal and why, in turn, its many former uses (railroads, shipping, household heating, industrial production) were displaced by fuels refined from crude oil and by natural gas.
At the beginning of the 21st century, global coal use was largely limited to two big remaining markets: generating electricity and using high-quality coal to produce metallurgical coke to produce iron (which is then turned into steel). In 2000, the United States derived half of its electricity from coal — a substantial share of it produced in aging plants built during the 1950s and 1960s (the decades of rising electricity demand). At this point, natural gas generated only 16 percent of electricity, and its stagnating domestic production seemed to make future large-scale imports of natural gas inevitable. Then came the rapid advances of hydraulic fracturing (shale gas and oil), and by 2009, the United States once again became the world’s largest producer of natural gas.
The economics became irresistible. Burning clean natural gas in highly efficient gas turbines (which can convert 60 percent of fuel’s energy, compared with 40 percent in the best coal-fired stations) became the most obvious choice. Secondarily, falling costs of wind turbines and solar panels made these new renewables more affordable in windy and sunny locations.
The result has been dramatic: In 2016, 30 percent of U.S. electricity came from coal (a reduction of more than 40 percent in 15 years), 34 percent originated from natural gas, and more than 6 percent came from wind and solar. Coal might not have fallen so quickly had electricity demand kept growing, but since 2010, consumption has been either flat or slightly declining.
The other formerly large coal market is almost gone: More than 90 percent of China’s steel production starts with iron produced in blast furnaces fueled with coke, but two-thirds of America’s declining domestic steel production now comes from recycled metal melted in electric arc furnaces. As a result, coking coal’s share in America’s overall coal use has fallen below 3 percent.
And while the United States is still a net coal exporter, foreign sales declined by nearly 60 percent between 2014 and 2016. International coal prices have been falling as well. So where would additional coal go in a country with stagnating electricity generation that is now dominated by natural gas, with marginal need for coking coal and with plummeting exports in a softening global market?
Exceptional circumstances can accelerate the gradual process of energy transitions: France’s decision to develop nuclear energy on a grand scale is perhaps the best example of how that can be done by government fiat. In contrast, America’s accelerated shift from coal has been driven by an inevitable embrace of cheaper natural gas.
And this substitution has another welcome consequence: Because per unit of energy natural gas combustion produces only about 45 percent of the carbon dioxide that coal does, energy-related emissions of this leading greenhouse gas in the United States declined by about 15 percent since fracking took off in 2005 — at a faster rate than in Germany with its “Energiewende,” a highly subsidized pursuit of accelerated shift to non-carbon energies.
This all leads to an unexpected conclusion: Actions by Trump may have as little effect on America’s energy use as did those issued by the previous administration. Economic and technical imperatives — not any preconceived directives — will keep propelling the process of energy transition.