Coal’s Future Remains Bleak Despite Trump’s Claims To The Contrary

Office of the President of the United States / Public Domain

“We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 percent,” Trump said at a rally in Virginia in August of 2016.

Running much of his campaign on a promise to revive the coal industry, President Donald Trump has not yet realized the gains he hoped for on the campaign trail. Reuters reports that a review of mining data reveals only modest increases in jobs and production in the year since Trump was elected, and much of it thanks to a temporary rise in foreign demand.

U.S. utilities are shutting coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace and shifting to cheap natural gas, along with wind and solar power. And domestic demand makes up about 90% of the market for U.S. coal.

Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power, one of the largest U.S. utilities, told Reuters the company has no plans to build additional coal facilities, adding:

“The future for coal is dictated by economics … and you can’t make those kinds of investments based on one administration’s politics.”

It is becoming more clear that policy from the White House can only go so far in trying to shift the tides for coal, as coal-friendly moves by the administration are unable to fully abate market disincentives for coal production.

Trump has likely done all he can do to help the industry, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents major U.S. coal companies. “The government is no longer against us,” he said. “We now only have market forces to contend with.”

Trump has taken a number of steps to revitalize the coal industry:

  • Shutting down President Obama's Clean Power Plan
  • Ending Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands
  • Doing away with limits on dumping coal waste into streams

Beginning U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

Now Trump’s Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, is attempting to push a rule through the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would subsidize power plants that store at least a 90-day supply of coal on site. The goal is to extend the life of some coal burning power plants, a move Perry says will make the electric grid more reliable.

In early November, Trump boasted via Twitter of slight gains in coal production, saying, “It is finally happening for our great clean coal miners!” But this is not a lasting trend, according to James Stevenson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit.

But these increases are largely attributable to demand for U.S. coal from Asian steel mills after temporary outages from their usual suppliers in Australia.... “We are not going to get a repeat of 2017,” he said of the spike in exports.