Politics & Government

Why Trump’s rollback of Obama rules won’t do much for coal country

President Donald Trump, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., March 1, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.
President Donald Trump, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., March 1, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. AP

President Donald Trump campaigned on putting coal miners back to work, and on Tuesday, he gave the impression he was delivering. But he wasn’t.

Trump rolled back Obama administration regulations considered detrimental to the industry. But the president’s actions will bring minimal benefit to the coal-producing regions that helped him win the White House, according to the government’s own projections.

At best, according to government data, coal production will increase by about 5 million tons a year by 2040 out of 800 million tons overall under Trump’s order.

Not all coal-producing regions will see an increase. Western and Appalachian coal are still forecast to decline. Only Illinois Basin coal will increase over time.

On Tuesday, Trump went to the Environmental Protection Agency to announce a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Obama’s plan relied in large part on closing plants that burned coal.

“You know what this says?” Trump asked a group of coal miners who appeared with him at the EPA Tuesday when he signed the orders overturning the Obama policies. “It says you are going back to work.”

However, power companies were already moving away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources because of ongoing economic trends. Cheap natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing has displaced numerous coal-fired power plants. Mechanized mining has been reducing coal employment for decades.

“Unless he does something about natural gas or technological change, it’s really not going to reverse the change we’ve seen,” said Ken Troske, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky. “If anything, these actions will slow the decline.”

Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said he couldn’t predict how many jobs Trump’s executive order would create, “but I can tell you that it definitely will help stop the bleeding.”

On Tuesday, White House officials and Republican leaders said Trump’s actions would revive struggling regions from Wyoming to Appalachia.

“The miners and owners are very bullish on this,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday.

“Today’s executive order is good news for coal communities,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“The ‘war on coal’ is over,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the EPA.

But even without the Obama-era regulations in place, the trend away from coal is likely to continue. Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a group that supports a transition away from coal, said neither utility companies nor public service commissions were clamoring to build new coal plants.

“We don’t see any utility adding new coal to their rate base,” Sanzillo said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts only a slight increase overall in coal production across the country through 2040 without the Clean Power Plan.

The agency projects that Appalachian and western coal would decline, and all of the increase would come from the Illinois basin, which includes parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Those producers use mechanized mining practices that have reduced the industry’s employment from 250,000 to 75,000 in 40 years.

“Over time, the industry has been able to mine more coal with less workers,” Sanzillo said.

Trump also ended Tuesday a temporary moratorium on new leases for coal mining on federal lands his predecessor instituted last year.

The leasing moratorium primarily affected coal production in Wyoming and Montana. Ending it will do nothing to help increase production in regions like southern Illinois or eastern Kentucky.

At best, Troske said that coal-fired power plants that would have closed in five years under the Clean Power Plan will now close in 10. And when they do, either natural gas or renewables will replace the coal they used.

Another action Trump took Tuesday may actually accelerate the shift. He promised to make it easier to drill for coal’s biggest competitor, natural gas.

“Helping natural gas would just put more pressure on coal,” Troske said.

States, meanwhile, have been aggressive at developing renewable energy.

Reliably Republican strongholds such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas generate an increasing amount of electricity from wind. The cost of wind and solar energy has come down, due in part to government subsidies.

The Democratic strongholds of California and New York said Tuesday that they’d continue to meet even more aggressive targets than what Obama proposed.

“With or without Washington, we will work with our partners throughout the world to aggressively fight climate change and protect our future,” Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York said in a statement.

With Trump’s actions, total U.S. coal production will stabilize at around 800 million tons a year, down from nearly 1.2 billion tons in 2008, according to government data.

Appalachian coal would still decline by 50 million tons a year, however, and western coal by 31 million tons. The Illinois Basin would make up for the decline with an increase of 86 million tons a year.

Appalachian states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, employ more miners than any other region and have felt the impact of coal’s decline more sharply.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis