10 Tech Developments to Watch in 2020

As 2020 draws near, I’ve rounded up 10 technology stories that bear watching over the next 12 months. The list is a sampling of some of the most important tech trends on my radar. I’ll be covering these stories and many more next year. Feel free to contact me with questions or comments on any of the topics. Continue reading “10 Tech Developments to Watch in 2020”

The Do Little Congress

Despite the drama that unfolded this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, which for only the third time in U.S. history voted to impeach a president, the mood on Capitol Hill was largely anticlimactic. That’s because the votes on the chamber’s two impeachment articles went down as expected. About the only surprise was how few Democrats broke party rank and didn’t support impeachment. Only two Democrats voted against impeaching President Trump on the first article (abuse of power), while three voted no on the second charge (obstruction of Congress). Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who is running for president, voted “present” on each. Continue reading “The Do Little Congress”

Another Leg Down for the Coal Industry in 2020

2020 will mark another milestone in the steep decline of the U.S. coal industry. Many plants have already shut down because of environmental or economic pressures, and U.S. coal consumption has been mostly shrinking for over a decade now. So the industry’s woes are old news. But consider: In 2020, the U.S. will likely see coal use fall to a 45-year low.

2019 is not yet over, and government statistics on coal consumption get reported with a lag of several months. But the Energy Department has reported on the first eight months of the year, which gives us a reasonably good estimate of how the year as a whole will end up. During that period, coal consumption fell by about 12% from the same period in 2018. Assuming that pattern holds – and given the low price of natural gas, coal’s chief competitor in the power sector, the pattern probably will hold – total coal consumption in 2019 will come in near 600 million tons. For reference, the U.S. burned a billion tons per year as recently as 2011.

What happened? A combination of factors. Under President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency tightened air quality regulations that made many older coal plants uneconomical to keep in operation. At the same time, the fracking revolution unleashed huge reserves of cleaner-burning natural gas, driving down its price to the point where gas became competitive with coal. What’s more, a host of federal and state policies incentivized utilities to ramp up wind and solar power, even as the cost of solar panels and wind turbines was falling. For coal, it was a triple whammy. The fuel that once supplied half of the nation’s power has since seen its share of the generation mix drop to a quarter.

The declines will continue. With more plants slated to shut down in 2020, I expect U.S. coal consumption to drop to between 550 million and 570 million tons. According to government records, the last time the nation burned so little coal was 1975. That’s roughly half of the peak hit in 2007, when demand came in at more than 1.1 billion tons.

For coal miners and regions tied to mining, this collapse has been devastating. Back in 2011, when the nation burned a billion tons of coal, employment in the industry stood at more than 90,000. By last year, that figure had shrunk to a bit over 53,000. According to the Department of Energy, just 16 mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana now account for 43% of total U.S. production, whereas the traditional mining regions of southern Appalachia have fallen to about 15%. And even in the prolific Powder River Basin, some of the major producers have filed for bankruptcy.

What about the export market? Can overseas demand make up for falling consumption at home? Probably not. Exports jumped in 2017 but peaked in 2018 and have since started to pull back. And the long-term outlook for U.S. coal exports isn’t bright. The International Energy Agency expects global coal demand to either stagnate or drop sharply, depending on what actions countries take to reduce carbon emissions in their power sectors. Either way, the rest of the world does not look like a growth market that can easily take up the slack left by shuttered American coal plants.

Congress is a Strange Place These Days

If ever there was a single day that highlighted just how chaotic, conflicting and outright strange a place Congress is, it was Tuesday. At 9 am, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) held a historic press conference to declare that the Democratic-controlled chamber had prepared two articles of impeachment against President Trump. The commander in chief and his fellow Republicans howled, though they certainly weren’t surprised.

Then, just an hour later, Pelosi surprisingly stepped to the microphones again to announce that she and the Trump administration had reached a deal on a long-stalled free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Talk about a schizophrenic morning! Continue reading “Congress is a Strange Place These Days”

New North American Free Trade Deal Brings Welcome Relief to Businesses

Barring some last-minute hiccups, a deal to ratify the new North American free trade pact appears to be in place, giving President Trump a major political victory and U.S. farmers and businesses some much-needed good news.

Plenty has been said about the politics of the deal, which comes after months of negotiations and amid a divisive impeachment inquiry in Congress. Perhaps the most surprising development was the endorsement of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; anyone with a passing knowledge of U.S. politics knows organized labor is no friend of free trade agreements. Continue reading “New North American Free Trade Deal Brings Welcome Relief to Businesses”

How Population Growth Will Affect Political Power Post-2020

It’s still too soon to say who will win the 2020 presidential election, now less than a year away. But plenty can be said about a major political event that won’t happen until after 2020: Congressional reapportionment, the process of divvying up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives based on population growth, which occurs every decade following the U.S. Census.

At least 16 states will gain or lose seats in Congress after the 2020 Census, based on the latest demographic trends. One thing to keep in mind: Since the number of House seats is fixed at 435, even states that are still adding people, such as Calif., are at risk of losing representation in Congress.

Continue reading “How Population Growth Will Affect Political Power Post-2020”

What To Expect From The Economy This Week

Look for the number of jobs added to the economy in November to top 190,000 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its employment report this Friday at https://www.bls.gov/ces/news.htm. That will be good news for the economy, but remember: The number will be inflated by including 42,000 General Motors workers returning from their now-ended strike. If the Friday release is much below 190k, that would indicate a slowing economy compared with previous reports.

It will also be of interest to see if the unemployment rate ticks up to 3.7% or not. A bump up would signal a bit of a slowdown. Finally, what happens to wage growth will provide an indication of the degree of tightness in the labor market. Wage growth has moderated since August, despite low unemployment. Perhaps companies are holding the line while uncertainty lingers over whether or how much the economy will slow down in 2020.

Continue reading “What To Expect From The Economy This Week”