The November elections have come and gone, and President-elect Trump is set to become the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017.
With a Trump administration comes hope for the beleaguered coal industry, which flew under the radar as an issue during the campaign season for all but the families living in coal country that depend on the industry and the power plants that employ them.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to bring back coal jobs, end anti-coal regulations, and make it easier to build new coal-fired power plants – which would reverse a decades-long trend of fewer new construction projects each year.
But will a Trump administration actually be able to restore coal to its glory days, or even approach them?
Expect Fewer Regulations – But Not a Complete Reversal
President Obama’s EPA created a slew of regulations that made producing coal prohibitively expensive. The hope in the industry is that these regulations will be repealed, or at the very least, rendered ineffective and unenforceable.
While it’s true that a Trump administration EPA – to be led by Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt – will seek to reverse emissions regulations that raise the operating cost of coal plants, it’s unlikely that they’ll be completely eliminated.
The key to the puzzle is the Congressional Review Act. This piece of legislation allows for Congress to do away with last-minute regulations put into place by outgoing administrations – such as the methane emissions regulations governing the oil and gas industry passed in the last few months. Unfortunately for coal supporters, the bulk of anti-coal regulations were passed outside of the limited timeframe of 60 legislative days.
Overturning these regulations – such as Utility MACT and the Clean Power Plan – would involve a lengthy and bitter legal battle spearheaded by environmental groups and attorneys general in Democratic-controlled states. Chances are, such a legal battle would drag on for years without a final outcome – more than likely until after the 2018 midterm elections and potentially after the 2020 elections.
Still, the Trump administration will do what it can to limit enforcement of existing regulations. Many of them have been adopted by states, however, and most states have incorporated some form of emission control legislation into their laws governing power plants within their borders.
Jobs, New Plant Construction Likely Not Coming Back
Other talking points and campaign promises – that there will be more coal jobs and more coal-fired power plants built – are unlikely.
The trend is closing plants, not building new ones. By 2017, for example, Kentucky – one of the top coal-producing states in the nation – will shutter four coal-fired generators. Alabama will close eight generators by 2019. Washington, Oregon, and Massachusetts won’t have any coal-fired plants left at all by 2025. And according to the Energy Information Agency, there are only three electricity-generating coal plants scheduled for opening by 2021.
Most of the reason why utilities aren’t rushing to open new coal plants is because the cost of doing so is high – higher than most other types of plants. A conventional coal plant with 30% carbon capture and storage (CCS) costs more to construct per kilowatt-hour than any other mainstream source other than nuclear and municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.
Virtually no new plant construction is one reason why many of the lost coal jobs aren’t coming back. The increased competitiveness of natural gas is another. Additionally, American coal exports have declined for three years in a row – going on a fourth – thanks to decreased global demand and increased exports from competing coal providers in which the labor cost of mining is lower. That, at least, has little to do with EPA regulations and more to do with the same problem with outsourcing that most other American industries have faced.
Ultimately, coal’s fate can be summed up by one of the foremost names in the industry. In an interview with POWER magazine, the CEO of coal giant Murray Energy Corp, Robert Murray, weighed in with his thoughts, saying: “I’ve asked President-elect Trump to temper his comments about bringing coal miners back and bringing coal back. It will not happen. The destruction that has happened is permanent.”
Murray’s perspective is an accurate representation of the problems facing the coal industry, and why many providers in the industry are adapting their coal-fired plants to biomass. A Trump administration will undoubtedly be kind to coal, but absent an advance in technology to cause coal to be more economically and environmentally competitive, the industry will continue to navigate uncertain waters.