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Energy Economist Says Paris Accord Withdraw Doesn't Mean Much For U.S. Energy


Let's talk for a few more minutes about one of the key reasons the president gave for pulling the U.S. out of the climate accord. He said it was to save American jobs such as the jobs in coal.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In short, the agreement doesn't eliminate coal jobs. It just transfers those jobs out of America and the United States and ships them to foreign countries.

MARTIN: As you've probably noticed by now, many voices have wished to be heard on this, so we thought we'd head to a place where coal and jobs are very much top of the mind. That would be Wyoming, which is the country's leading coal producer. Wyoming produces more than 40 percent of this country's coal, according to government numbers. Robert Godby is the director of the Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, and he is with us now from his home. Professor Godby, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROBERT GODBY: I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, as we just mentioned, that Wyoming is the country's leading coal producer. Wyoming produces more coal than the next six states combined. So does the president's decision have any real effect on employment in that state?

GODBY: If we're talking about the Paris Accord decision, probably not because the decisions that really mattered were ones made prior to this that kind of put us on a course. So for example, it's been made known by the administration that they don't support the Clean Power Plan, and that was really the policy that people were most concerned about here. The Paris Accord was really about a commitment in an international forum to try to meet climate goals. And I think people in Wyoming, they definitely - many of them probably wanted to hear that we were going to avoid committing to climate goals that hurt coal or that they perceive hurt coal. But this announcement probably doesn't mean as much in terms of energy production in the United States.

MARTIN: Is there any scenario in which there will be an increase in employment in the United States related to coal production and fossil fuels more generally in the coming years?

GODBY: Certainly under any sort of greenhouse gas regulations, you will lose jobs in certain sectors, but you will gain jobs in other sectors. So the trick is trying to figure out what the net effect is. Even now, when we don't have climate change policies in place across the country, we still see an explosion in renewable development. So we could see a world without greenhouse gas regulations where fossil fuel jobs continue - at least in the coal industry, for example - continue to decline and other technologies develop in their place.

MARTIN: So what's happening in Wyoming now? What is the state of play there? Are the number of jobs in the fossil fuel area and coal declining, and what are people doing instead?

GODBY: To be honest with you, the story in the coal sector is not about regulations at all right now. What it is is about natural gas prices. They've been low. Natural gas is a substitute for coal when you make electricity. And right now, it's just cheaper to make electricity from natural gas than coal. But natural gas has this additional benefit that for the same amount of electricity produced with natural gas, you produce half the carbon emissions. And so in Wyoming, we've seen a big downturn, about a 25 percent decline, in coal production and about a thousand jobs lost. We had about 6,600 miners here a few years ago. We're down to about 5,600 miners. That downturn has been caused primarily by natural gas.

MARTIN: Professor Godby, you had said there are about a thousand fewer people working in mining. Did they leave the state? I mean, what did they do?

GODBY: In a lot of cases, they've left the state. Wyoming is effectively in a recession because the energy sector is really responsible for about a third of the output of the state. And we saw last year, for the first time since 1990, the population in the state declined. So the question of what are they doing, many are leaving the state. They're looking for jobs elsewhere.

MARTIN: That's Robert Godby. He is the director of the Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, and we reached him at his home office. Professor Godby, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GODBY: I'm glad to be on your show. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.