Embattled Coal Boosters Look for Help From Trump

Rolling back regulations won’t save the industry, so supporters are looking for a leg up.

AP Photo/Matthew Brown
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Nov. 16, 2016, 8 p.m.

It didn’t take long for real­ity to de­flate one of Don­ald Trump’s big cam­paign prom­ises.

After Trump ran through coal coun­try with a pledge to bring back min­ing jobs by rolling back reg­u­la­tions (“I’m go­ing to be an un­be­liev­able pos­it­ive,” he said at a Vir­gin­ia rally), no less an au­thor­ity than Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell said it wouldn’t be that easy.

Speak­ing last week at the Uni­versity of Louis­ville, the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky said that Re­pub­lic­ans would give Trump op­tions to end the “as­sault” of reg­u­la­tions, but “wheth­er that im­me­di­ately brings busi­ness back is hard to tell be­cause it’s a private-sec­tor activ­ity,” ac­cord­ing to the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Lead­er.

Al­though the “war on coal” has been a handy polit­ic­al catch­phrase, plum­met­ing nat­ur­al-gas prices are a much big­ger factor in the in­dustry’s down­turn. Coal pro­duc­tion fell by 10 per­cent in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the En­ergy In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the agency has pre­dicted that nat­ur­al-gas-fired gen­er­a­tion could sur­pass coal this year in the U.S. Coal plants are re­tir­ing across the coun­try (41 will close this year, ac­cord­ing to EIA), and tens of thou­sands of min­ing jobs have been lost over the last dec­ade.

Luke Pop­ovich, a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Min­ing As­so­ci­ation, said the in­dustry is simply ask­ing that the new White House lift reg­u­la­tions like the Clean Power Plan, rules to keep coal waste from en­ter­ing streams, and the morator­i­um on coal leas­ing on fed­er­al land. Trump could also re­duce fed­er­al tax and roy­alty rates on coal min­ing.

“Let us com­pete on the mar­ket­place with cheap gas and take the gov­ern­ment out of the ring,” Pop­ovich said. “That’s all we have a right to ex­pect.”

But James Van Nos­trand, dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for En­ergy and Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment at West Vir­gin­ia Uni­versity, said that util­it­ies’ shift away from coal was un­likely to stop.

“It’s all about the num­bers. The Clean Power Plan doesn’t have much to do with this,” Van Nos­trand said. “I don’t know what you could do to in­centiv­ize new coal power plants.”

That’s got some in­dustry back­ers look­ing past just “lev­el­ing the play­ing field” to see what else the gov­ern­ment could do to help.

Laura Men­gelkamp, a spokes­man for in­com­ing Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Bar­rasso, said the Wyom­ing Re­pub­lic­an will work with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to quickly ap­prove con­struc­tion of new ex­port ter­min­als, which would help pro­du­cers ex­port coal to mar­kets in Asia.

The prob­lem, though, is that the Asi­an mar­ket just may not ex­ist. China and In­dia have both com­mit­ted to cap­ping their emis­sions as part of United Na­tions cli­mate deals, and China earli­er this year can­celed con­struc­tion of new coal-fired plants total­ing 105 gigawatts of power. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Coalswarm, a group af­fil­i­ated with en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, 150 gigawatts of po­ten­tial coal gen­er­a­tion world­wide was can­celed in the first half of this year alone.

Even get­ting the ex­port ter­min­als built in lib­er­al-lean­ing states like Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon is an up­hill battle.

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said the gov­ern­ment could give the in­dustry a boost by in­vest­ing in so-called clean-coal tech­no­logy, with strategies like car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion that would re­duce the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact of coal plants.

“From an en­vir­on­ment­al view­point, the world will be bet­ter if the U.S. is lead­ing on clean-coal tech­no­logy, not to men­tion the af­ford­able, re­li­able en­ergy we get from coal,” Daines said.

CCS tech­no­logy has been slow to get off the ground, al­though the in­dustry is bullish on it as a way to keep burn­ing fossil fuels without dam­aging the en­vir­on­ment. Ex­tend­ing a tax cred­it for CCS re­search—an idea that’s at­trac­ted bi­par­tis­an sup­port on the Hill—could of­fer a source of new jobs in coal coun­try.

“Let us make a liv­ing and do what this coun­try needs, and we’ll do it in a safe and very en­vir­on­ment­ally [friendly] way,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia. “But don’t tell me ‘I can’t,’ and don’t just beat me up and throw my fam­ily out. We’re tired of that.”

The fact re­mains that oth­er sources of en­ergy have simply be­come more af­ford­able and abund­ant. An ana­lys­is re­leased Wed­nes­day by the In­ter­na­tion­al En­ergy Agency pre­dicts that by 2040, nearly 60 per­cent of new power gen­er­a­tion comes from re­new­ables. Nat­ur­al gas also con­tin­ues to grow, while coal con­sump­tion barely grows be­cause of re­duced de­mand in China (the ana­lys­is is based on com­mit­ments to the Par­is agree­ment, which could change if the U.S. with­draws).

Some of the growth in re­new­ables has been helped by tax sub­sidies, es­pe­cially the pro­duc­tion and in­vest­ment tax cred­its for wind and sol­ar that got ex­ten­ded for five years in last year’s budget deal. Cut­ting those cred­its—a pos­sib­il­ity un­der a Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress—could halve the growth in the U.S. sol­ar mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is by Greentech Me­dia.

Van Nos­trand said that cut­ting fed­er­al cred­its may not do much to boost coal over re­new­ables, since oth­er sub­sidies are “baked in­to” state and fed­er­al tax codes.

“If Trump really wanted to help the coal in­dustry, he’d go ahead on reg­u­la­tions of the nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry to take away some of that price ad­vant­age,” he said, adding that in­creas­ing nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports could help bump up the price. “I guess you’d do all you can to make nat­ur­al-gas prices go up, and do the same with re­new­ables. But it seems like full steam ahead on gas.”

Mary Anne Hitt, who leads the Si­erra Club’s Bey­ond Coal cam­paign, said that the in­dustry might be “buoyed” in the early years of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, but saw more forces work­ing against coal.

“Hav­ing stand­ards rolled back would be dis­ap­point­ing, and it’s a set­back,” Hitt said. “But de­cisions on elec­tri­city are made primar­ily at the state and loc­al level, not in Wash­ing­ton. We’re well on our way to meet­ing our goals, and states are go­ing to keep march­ing on to clean en­ergy.”

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