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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