Power lines run from the Intermountain Power Project plant in Delta, Utah, U.S.(Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg)

There's Too Much Focus on Energy Jobs Right Now

(Bloomberg View) -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made a striking claim Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." The "coal sector," he said, has added almost 50,000 jobs since the fourth quarter of last year, and almost 7,000 just in May. Party poopers in the news media immediately pointed out that this couldn't possibly be true, given that total employment in coal mining was just 51,000 in May. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's up 1,700 from October (the beginning of last year's fourth quarter) and up 400 in the month of May. These numbers are, just to be clear, a lot smaller than 50,000 and 7,000.

When I asked the EPA about this today, the response was that overall employment in mining (which includes drilling for oil and gas) had increased by 47,000 since last October. This is true (and mining employment was up 6,600 in May)! That's not the same as coal-sector jobs, of course, but to his credit Pruitt had kinda-sorta corrected himself by the time he went on ABC's "This Week" later on Sunday morning:

We've had over 50,000 jobs since last quarter -- coal jobs, mining jobs -- created in this country. We had almost 7,000 mining and coal jobs created in the month of May alone.

That's still a bit misleading, given that coal was responsible for only a small fraction of those gains,  and that the rise of another mining sector -- natural gas, which is displacing coal as the main fuel used in electricity generation in the U.S. -- was surely responsible for a large share of the nearly 40,000 coal-mining jobs lost since early 2012. But Pruitt was making his point in the context of a discussion about his boss's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and given that more than two-thirds of U.S. mining-sector jobs involve extracting things that are burned for fuel and throw off carbon dioxide in the process, it wasn't irrelevant to that discussion.

The guiding motivation of the Donald Trump administration's energy and environmental policies so far seems to be that jobs in natural-resource extraction are really really important, so pointing out that there are almost 50,000 more of them than there were before Trump was elected is a natural enough thing to do. It also leads to the natural response from critics of the Trump administration that the wind and solar energy sectors employ lots of people, too. A Department of Energy report from early this year (when Barack Obama was still president) estimated that solar power generation accounted for 373,807 jobs, compared with 160,119 for coal (arrived at by adding people employed in coal-fired power generation to the coal mining totals) and 309,993 for natural gas. Oil still came out on top at 515,518 jobs, though. Then again, as Business Insider's Josh Barro put it last week:

Josh Barro @jbarro
I get the political imperatives on both sides, but it's dumb to evaluate energy policy based on what leads to more people working in energy
Twitter: Josh Barro on Twitter

 

How should we evaluate energy policy instead? Well, one way would be to look at the energy sector's contribution to gross domestic product: The U.S. mining industry (which, again, is about two-thirds fossil fuel extraction) accounted for 1.4 percent of GDP in 2016 and has been fluctuating around an average of 1.9 percent since the 1940s. Utilities, meanwhile, accounted for 1.6 percent of GDP in 2016 and have been at about that level since the early 2000s.

There's Too Much Focus on Energy Jobs Right Now

Energy's most important contribution to the economy, though, is what it enables other industries to do. Cheap, reliable energy is of great economic value, and coal is definitely cheap and reliable. One 2006 study by economists at Penn State University estimated that displacing 33 percent of coal-fired electric power generation by 2015 would cost the economy $166 billion a year (1.3 percent of GDP at the time) because of job losses and higher fuel costs. In fact, coal use in electrical power generation did drop 33 percent from 2006 to 2015 (!). This almost certainly didn't cost the economy $166 billion a year, though, because that estimate didn't anticipate that natural gas prices would plummet thanks to the fracking boom, or that wind and solar power prices would fall as much as they have. It's difficult to make predictions, especially about energy prices.

Finally, there's the environmental cost imposed by fossil fuels. A 2011 study by economists at Middlebury College and Yale University estimated that pollution from coal-fired power generation caused 2.2 times the dollar value in gross external damages (mainly through the negative health effects of sulfur dioxide emissions) than coal-fired generation added in economic value. That's not counting the potential effect of carbon-dioxide emissions on the climate; including them upped the ratio to 2.83. Natural-gas-fired generation caused direct gross external damages of just 0.34 of its value added; 1.3 if you factored in climate change.

All these estimates are approximations with big margins of error and much room for debate. They can also be maddeningly abstruse (I'd like to see somebody try to discuss gross external damages and economic value added on "Meet the Press"). So we end up tossing around jobs numbers instead. Which makes it important that we get them right.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

  1. To be precise, percent of the total mining employment gains since October, not counting support activities for coal mining, which aren't broken out in the monthly establishment survey data but added up to jobs total last September, the most recent month for which data is available from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages

  2. There is an alternative hypothesis that it's really just all about doing whatever will work liberals into a lather.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net.

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