Thursday, March 30, 2017

Many coal jobs have been replaced by automation

Self-driving Caterpillar truck 
President Trump's promise to bring back coal jobs can't be fulfilled largely because automation has replaced many jobs, Hiroko Tabuchi reports for The New York Times. "In 1980, the industry employed about 242,000 people. By 2015, that figure had plunged 60 percent, to fewer than 100,000, even as coal production edged up 8 percent. Helped by automation, worker productivity more than tripled over the same period, according to data from the federal Energy Information Administration and the Brookings Institution."

While cheaper natural gas and Obama-administration regulations are blamed for a decline in coal jobs, another reason is "a shift from underground coal mines to surface mines—which involves opening mountains with controlled explosions, then using automated heavy machinery to mine the coal," Tabuchi writes.

A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment "predicted that automation was likely to replace 40 to 80 percent of workers at mines," Tabuchi writes. Corrie Scott, a Caterpillar spokeswoman, told Tabuchi that "automation makes mines more 'safe, efficient and productive." She said, “While mines would not need as many drivers, they will need more people who use and understand the latest technology.”

Nicolas Maennling, senior economics and policy researcher at Columbia University and an author of the automation study, told Tabuchi, “However way you spin it, gas and renewables are going to continue to replace coal. And in order to stay competitive, coal will have to increase automation. What Mr. Trump does will make little difference.”

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