Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Will the Job Outlook be Great Again? (Part 2: Energy Extraction)

In my previous blog, I discussed the likely impact of the Trump administration on manufacturing jobs and concluded that he is unlikely to deliver on his promise of a renaissance in low-skill manufacturing jobs. Although in his campaign Trump gave the greatest emphasis to manufacturing, he also assured voters that he would boost employment in other industrial sectors. This blog is about another sector.

Energy Extraction. The government has considerable powers to regulate the energy-extractive industries: coal mining and petroleum. The majority of lawmakers in Donald Trump’s party have been saying for some time that global warming either does not exist or is not caused by human activities, and in doing so they have positioned themselves as champions of this industry sector. Although at times Trump has made vague concessions that there may be human causes, most of the time he hews to the more extreme version of the party line. He even tweeted that human causation is a myth concocted by the Chinese, although later he denied having said so.

 For both Trump and the Republican Congressional majority, two main policy recommendations result from this denial of the scientific evidence: (1) increased oil drilling and coal mining (“Drill, baby, drill!”); and (2) reduction or elimination of limits placed on carbon-releasing industrial activity (“Burn, baby, burn!”). Another result is encouragement of oil-pipeline construction, which has frequently been blocked by environmentalists.

Among the existing laws, regulations, and treaties that bind the United States to reducing carbon output, some will easier than others Trump and Congress to reverse. Trump has said he will “cancel” the Paris agreement, in which nations have promised to cut their output of greenhouse gases, and he can back out of this agreement by one of several ways. On the other hand, it will be difficult for him to roll back the regulations that make up the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. To do so, he will need to propose alternative regulations and will face litigation from environmentalist groups that could delay or even block any changes. Any changes Congress wants to make will face possible filibustering from Democrats. If Trump and the Republican Congress succeed at rolling back regulations, it is possible that states will take a more active role. For example, California already has more stringent standards for vehicle emissions than the nation as a whole, and other states can adopt the California standards.

Market forces are already promoting the transition from dirty energy sources to cleaner sources. As cheaper natural gas has become available, power plants have been switching from coal to gas. The Energy Department found this transition the chief reason why carbon dioxide emissions in the first half of 2016 reached the lowest levels since 1991. During that period, in which the weather was relatively mild, consumption of coal fell by 18%, while consumption of natural gas fell by only 1%. Energy from renewable sources increased by 9% during that same period. Meanwhile, the cost of alternative-energy sources has continued to fall, and energy-saving consumer goods, including hybrid and electric cars, have become more affordable. If you haven’t shopped for LED light bulbs lately, you may be surprised at how cheap they have become.

Even if the government managed to walk away from the anti-carbon policies of the past few years, it is questionable whether market forces would allow the petroleum-extraction industry to expand and create jobs on a large scale. Employment in this sector was at 538,000 in October 2014 but is now at about 175,000 workers. Anti-carbon policies had very little to do with this slump. Instead, the main culprit was the glut of capacity that was created by America’s widespread adoption of fracking technologies, together with the development of new oilfields in other countries, such as Brazil. Opening up new areas (such as national parks and sensitive offshore ecosystems) for drilling will not produce a cornucopia of jobs as long as the glut of cheap oil and gas continues to make it uneconomical to set up new drilling rigs and pipelines.

Coal-mining jobs face a similar hurdle. Employment in 2015 reached the lowest levels since the Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1978, and the number of mines decreased in all three major coal-producing regions.  The EIA reports (PDF) that between 2014 and 2015, “the average total number of employees at underground mines and surface mines  declined  by  13.6%  and  9.3%,  respectively.” More significantly, “the   average production per employee-hour increased by 5.4% to 6.3 short tons per employee hour.” Like the manufacturing sector, coal mining has increased its use of automation and other technologies for extracting coal more easily.  Coal is now extracted mainly by excavation from the surface (including mountaintop removal), using colossal machines operated by relatively few workers. In 2015, all of the top 10 coal-producing operations were surface extractions. The industry is vastly different from the labor-intensive days when Loretta Lynn’s father went to work with a pick and shovel down in a tunnel .

So the policies advocated by Trump (most of the time) and by the Republicans in Congress are unlikely to create a boom in employment in the energy-extractive industries. That’s not to mention the damage that these policies will do to the alternative-energy industries, to the extent that solar and wind power are still being subsidized.

There is one more wild card that may influence the energy-extraction policies of the new administration: Trump’s relationship with Russia. Oil and natural gas are Russia’s major exports, accounting for 68% of total export revenues in 2013. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Trump has made good relations with Russia a high priority. So although removing the barriers to petroleum output in the United States might create a limited number of jobs here, it would depress worldwide prices for petroleum and thus inflict a blow to Russia’s economy. Perhaps Congress will be less eager than President Trump to prop up Vladimir Putin.

Of course, unemployment in the oil patch and especially in the coal belt is no trivial matter that either party can afford to ignore. But the answer is not to turn back the clock on energy policy as if the energy markets and extractive technologies have not changed since the 1970s energy crises. Wayne Gretzky used to say that you skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been. As was true for manufacturing, the answer is to retrain displaced workers and train young people for the changed economy. But, as I pointed out in the previous blog, Trump and the Republicans are not advocating policies that will expand the availability of low-cost, high-skill training.