Business & Lobbying

Coal industry looks to Trump for lifeline

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Coal companies are hoping that President-elect Donald Trump can bring them back from the brink.

The coal industry has been in a downward spiral in recent years, with cheap natural gas, Obama administration policies and environmental activism all working against it.

{mosads}But Trump has promised to revive the industry and bring back the thousands of jobs that it once provided in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio that pushed him to presidential victory.

“We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Trump said at a West Virginia rally during the campaign. “The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania … Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me.”

Trump has promised to repeal major pieces of President Obama’s environmental agenda, which he and the industry characterize as a “war on coal.”

Specifically, Trump has pledged to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule and the Interior Department’s stream-protection regulations, among others.

He’s promised to repeal two rules for every new one created and said all regulations would have to benefit American workers in order for his administration to write them.

“Every one of us in the industry wakes up in the morning now feeling a little better about ourselves because we know the government won’t be out to put us out of business,” said Nick Carter, interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

But the extent to which Trump can make a meaningful difference for the coal industry and bring back jobs, short of policies to incentivize or mandate its use, is an open question.

Experts and even industry officials say Trump’s policies are likely to make a marginal difference, potentially increasing profit margins.

Beyond that, the future of coal remains cloudy.

“It’s not likely that coal is going to reclaim its former primary place in the electric generation mix … even if the regulations go away,” said David Spence, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The things that could have a more lasting, long-term effect are the things that are difficult and unlikely to be done,” said Andy Roberts, a researcher at Wood Mackenzie, speculating that Trump could push more environmental regulation to the states or roll back longstanding, health-based environmental policies. But both of those things would be difficult to achieve.

Coal’s most staunch defenders are welcoming Trump with open arms and endorsing his policies. But even they say coal’s glory days might not return.

“We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault, whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Paul Bailey, the top lobbyist at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the industry is thankful to have Trump poised to taking over the presidency.

If there is any chance to grow the use of coal, rolling back Obama administration rules like the Clean Power Plan is essential, Bailey said. 

“If we get the right policies out of the Trump administration, at least we’re not going see more harm to the coal fleet and coal production.”

 The Clean Power Plan, currently on hold by court order, would require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

But coal’s main problem is competition from cheap, abundant natural gas. Utilities are mostly choosing gas rather than coal when building new plants that will operate for decades.

In addition, renewable energy like solar and wind are cheaper than coal in much of the country.

“At this point, the market and the American people have turned away from coal, and have moved on, and that is a tide that Donald Trump cannot reverse,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Beyond Coal, which is financed in large part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), is unique among national environmental programs. Much of its work is dedicated to advocacy in states, localities and public utility commissions, which make the bulk of the decisions regarding shutting down power plants or building new ones.

“The strength of our campaign has been working in states and cities and utility commissions, so that every time there is a decision made about whether to invest in a coal plant or not, that we are there to make the case that renewable energy is cheaper, and investing in coal is a bad bet. And we have been successful,” Hitt said. “We’re going to double down on that.”

Still, the industry is hopeful for growth.

Carter, of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that if the economy grows at the 3 percent or 4 percent annual rate that Trump is promising, coal demand would inevitably increase.

Tags Donald Trump Mitch McConnell

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