In the wake of the decision to leave the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trump administration has been touting the salutary impact of its policies and general attitude on the beleaguered coal sector. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said on Meet the Press on Sunday that “in fact since the fourth quarter of last year to most recently added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector. In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs.” Aside from being ungrammatical, that’s wrong. And it represents a willful misreading of the data from one of the reportedly central voices behind Trump’s decision to withdraw from the climate pact. (Needless to say, Chuck Todd didn’t correct him.) As the government’s own numbers show, there were only 51,000 coal-mining jobs in the entire U.S. in May. Last month, 400 coal jobs were added—not 7,000. It was the overall mining sector, which includes oil, gas, and metals mining in addition to coal, that added 7,000 jobs in the month and 50,000 since last 2016.
Regardless of the facts, the Trump administration seems committed to puffing up high-emissions, high-carbon businesses like coal as massive job producers. The administration is touting the planned opening this week of the Acosta coal mine in Pennsylvania. It will create between 70 and 100 jobs.
The numbers, and the eagerness of coal partisans to inflate the importance of coal employment, only serve to highlight how irrelevant coal is becoming—as an economic force, to be sure, but also as an employment force. And if Trump & co. are really eager to boost the employment prospects of people who live in Appalachian communities that used to subsist on coal wages, he might suggest they look for jobs in nearby new-economy hubs like Pittsburgh or Louisville, Kentucky, which has 30,000 job openings.
The few jobs that could theoretically come back one day from a revival of East Coast coal are significantly dwarfed by the actual number of open positions in noncoal industries in the region right now.
Here’s the reality. Regardless of the attitudes of those in the executive branch, and in spite of efforts to roll back environmental protection, the low- and no-emissions economy has an immense amount of momentum behind it and is growing as an economic force. At the same time, the high-emissions economy is in a long-term secular decline. Culture and policy have something to do with it. But powerful underlying trends—the cost advantage of natural gas and, increasingly, renewables—are really driving the train. The day after Trump announced the withdrawal from the Paris accord, Kansas City Power & Light announced it will shut down several generating units that burn coal.
The same trend can be seen when we look at jobs—and the wages, livelihoods, dignity, and purpose that go along with them. The coal mining industry added 400 jobs in May—a significant achievement. Meanwhile, back in the real world, low- and no-emissions companies are hiring like crazy. I spent a few minutes at the career site of Tesla, which not only makes electric cars but also solar roof shingles, solar panels, and batteries. I adjusted the filter so it would show North American jobs, and then I excised any Canadian jobs from the list.
By my count, Tesla—which is just one company—has 1,861 job openings in the U.S. And the company isn’t just looking for coders. These positions are blue-collar, white-collar, skilled, unskilled. And while they are generally concentrated in Tesla’s home state of California, there are openings all over. Sales positions in Texas; global supply managers and human resources staffers in Palo Alto, California; a customer experience specialist in Pittsburgh; a material handler at a factory in Buffalo, New York; mobile service technicians in Tennessee, Florida, and Illinois; engineering technicians in Fremont, California; a supercharger installation program manager in Seattle; a pre-owned sales adviser in Decatur, Georgia; a service detailer in Richmond, Virginia. And on and on and on.
Tesla isn’t a Silicon Valley employment paradise. It’s a high-pressure manufacturing environment, and conditions in the factory can be challenging. But conditions there compare favorably with a coal mine. And, unlike coal mines, Tesla is actually hiring in significant numbers.