By Catherine Rampell
Fighting the law of gravity is hard.
The Trump administration is learning that, as new data show that the industries it has worked hardest to prop up — through bailouts, tariffs and other favors — continue their descent.
Maybe it’s the perceived machismo of old, male-dominated, blue-collar industries; maybe it’s that their heyday (at least in terms of jobs) was during the postwar boom that happened to coincide with President Trump’s childhood. For whatever reason, the president has been obsessed with the fortunes of coal, steel and other heavy industries. To Trump, any difficulties such sectors face are national tragedies whose reversal demands re-rigging the rest of the economy, regardless of cost.
In coal’s case, this has meant a series of proposals intended to bail out a foundering fossil-fuel industry.
U.S. coal consumption in 2018 was at its lowest level in 39 years, according to another recent EIA report. More coal-fired plants closed in Trump’s first two years in office than in the entirety of Obama’s first term.
To be clear, that’s not because of anything Trump has done. It’s because of what he can’t do.
Despite Trump’s claims, the main challenge for coal is not regulation. It’s technology. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in particular, has made natural gas a much cheaper alternative. Productivity gains have also been rapid, faster than many analysts expected, making natural gas even more competitive.
And a lot more natural gas may soon come online.
“Thus far, the shale revolution has been mostly confined to North America,” says Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. But there are large, as-yet-untapped deposits around the world that other countries want to extract. “The world’s history of leaving $100 bills on the ground is very, very short.”
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