Prior to President Obama’s final State of the Union this week, an editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal bemoaned the withering of the coal industry. The main culprit in this supposed tragedy is, of course, government regulation.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, the coal industry has declined by fifteen percent. As the authors of the Wall Street Journal piece note, this is driven largely by changes in the global market and the rise of natural gas. But they also think that an overly intrusive government has burdened the industry, resulting in the loss of 40,000 jobs (some dispute this figure).
They derisively needle the Obama Administration, writing, “For now the pain is concentrated among those who used to work in the coal fields. They are still waiting for all those new green jobs Mr. Obama has been promising since he arrived in Washington.”
But as Paul Krugman points out, the green jobs are here. The solar industry, in particular, is booming; Krugman argues that the growth of jobs in the solar industry alone more than make up for the jobs lost in the coal industry.
We shouldn’t be too cavalier about this. While it’s true that job growth in solar is outpacing job loss in coal, it’s not true that new jobs entirely make up for old jobs lost. Different industries may employ very different types of workers. A 55-year-old who has worked in the coal fields for thirty years may not easily be able to find a new job, while his comfortable retirement remains out of reach. These job losses can cause significant hardship.
And yet these trends were foreseeable long before Obama’s election, and industries rise and fall all the time in market societies. Regulations and government intervention may speed up or slow down these effects, but job losses will inevitably occur. It’s a government’s responsibility to provide a decent social safety net to reduce the burden of these losses.
As for the regulations, Krugman points out that it’s ludicrous to simply write them off as governmental overreach. Coal plants demonstrably imperil our citizens and our world; they are a case study in the the need for state oversight of industry.
Among the regulations mentioned in the editorial are restrictions on mercury, coal ash and greenhouse gas emissions. These regulations are crucial, given the extreme cost of coal plant emissions. One report estimated that 13,000 people are killed yearly from power plant emissions, and coal plants are the deadliest type of power plant. And of course, the danger posed long-term and worldwide by intense carbon emissions is indisputable.
There are likely to be dangers we have yet to measure accurately. One recent study in 2015 found that even as far as 20 or 40 miles away, mothers who lived downwind of coal power plants were more likely to give birth to children with low birth weights.
So we should be happy that green jobs are on the rise. In fact, solar and wind technologies are poised to have a banner year. While coal power still makes up a much larger portion of the nation’s power supply compared to green energy, green energy’s rise is set to match the continuing fall of coal.
As The Washington Post documents, the demand for solar and wind installations is spiking across the globe. Even in the face of low prices for fossil fuels, consumers and investors seem ready to embrace cleaner alternatives. Goldman Sachs recently announced that it will invest $150 billion into renewable energy, a four-fold increase over their previous investments.
China and India, whose large populations will have the highest demand for energy going forward, are planning monumental investments in renewable energy, as are many African nations.
Experts credit both Congress and the White House for at least part of the growing expansion in wind and solar power throughout the United States. And this is exactly how, one would hope, a government should work. It imposes costs on industries that cause excessive harms to the nation and the world, and it bolsters fledgling industries with revolutionary potential.
With only six percent of the nation’s energy coming from wind and solar, it’s far from time to break out the party hats. But the interest in and demand for these technologies is encouraging, and all the trends appear to point in the right direction. We still face many challenges from environmental toxins and global climate change, but important work by activists, regulators, our government and the global community are getting us closer to where we need to be.
Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano