Coal – A Lifetime Theme

I was reading a couple of Reuters articles this morning with interest about Coal and Trump’s rolling back of regulations and threats to walk away from the Paris Accord. It’s all very interesting and shows how complex the world actually is compared to Trump’s perhaps rather niave view of it. As I read these articles, it triggered the thought that coal has been a theme during my life. Other Brits of my age will recall the three-day week, National Union of Mining leader – Scargill, and the miners strikes. The battle between Thatcher’s Government and the Miners Union essentially ended the coal mining industry as I had known it anyway. In recent years, what remains of that industry in the UK has been further hammered by plans to end coal-fired power generation by 2020.

I recall as a college student the fear and excitement of visiting a working colliery in the UK. The elevator ride was endless and it really felt as if you were headed to hell as it got darker and hotter the deeper that we got. The mine itself was fairly modern and at times, it felt like a surface factory. About half a day later, we emerged back into daylight and headed to the showers covered in black dust. How anyone could work for decades down there is beyond me.

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But my life theme of coal goes back even further. My Ph.D.was around fossils and paleoenvironment in the Carboniferous Coal Measures. I spent three summer field seasons in Nova Scotia examining the coals of Sydney, Mabou Mines, and other famous old coal mining areas there. I visited the mining museum and looked in awe at the rudimentary 18th Century implements and mining methods, examined the photographs of the miners covered in black dust, and felt sad reading about the various disasters and deaths that had plagued the industry there. I know more about Coal than most. I know how coal was deposited, what the world looked like as it was deposited, and all about the faunas and floras of the time. Needless to say, the atmosphere was laden with CO2 – none of it man made. We are talking percentage points not ppm as well. Oh well, that is a different article..

The demise of coal, a great employer in the past, seems sealed. Even as Trump tries to bring Coal back, most utilities in the US will continue with their plans to move to renewables, natural gas, and other sources of generation. They can’t make massive investments based on the chances that Trump is a 5-year President. They have investors and shareholders who have political and environmental views. They have consumers who increasingly will pay a premium for ‘green’ power. Trump’s actions are too little and too late. At the same time, US Coal companies do not want Trump to follow through with abandonment of the Paris accord. No – they want a place at the table for if there is to be a role for coal in the next decades it will be in the developing world. China, India, and such places who need to ramp their power industry massively and very quickly and who see coal as a way to do that. Of course, if the US exits the agreement then they fear that the EU will lead the discussion around the use of coal in the industry and if they do, coal may not have much of a future at all.

It seems then that whatever Trump does, the future of Coal will depend on things beyond his control or influence and the more he tries to remove ‘barriers’, the more issues he is creating for the industry. Perhaps as I reach retirement and beyond, so will Coal – aptly finishing what seems to have been a lifelong linkage.

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