New Mine Fuels Trump’s Coal Crusade, But Global Energy Markets May Have the Final Say
By Ishmael Bishop | Jun 29, 2017
“You’re going back to work,” President Donald Trump promised a group of coal miners who came to EPA headquarters in Washington to witness the signing of a March executive order on energy independence and economic growth.
The president’s declaration takes his promises to coal country full circle. During the 2016 election campaign, he claimed that the Obama administration had waged a “war on coal,” arguing that stricter environmental regulations led to job losses in coal-producing states.
However, Trump chose to ignore other important forces at work that have hastened the demise of coal. A recent report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy found that significant changes in global energy markets contributed to the U.S. coal industry’s decline more than the Obama-era climate initiatives, including a decrease in demand for coal from China which, in turn, produced a major drop in U.S. coal exports. Stateside, cheaper natural gas contributed to about half of the decline in domestic coal consumption, while a decrease in the demand for electricity and an increase in renewable energy usage were also factors.
The overall result? From 2011 to 2016, U.S. coal production declined 27 percent, 1.096 billion tons to 730 million, the steepest five-year postwar decline in U.S. history, according to the report.
Despite these market signals, the Trump administration continues to call for increased coal production—and American companies have responded. In Raleigh County, West Virginia, the Tennessee-based Alpha Natural Resources plans to open the Panther Eagle Coal mine next month. Charlie Bearse, the company’s vice president for operations said in a statement, “Recent improvement in the [coal] market has created more demand for our coal and strategically increasing production will help meet that need.”
Yet the report’s authors’ noted that in 2011, when Alpha acquired Massey Energy Co. for $7.1 billion, the Chinese demand for coal was expected to remain steady. Five years later, that demand has declined: China now relies on its own coal reserves and plans to invest at least $360 billion in renewable energy sources.
The transition to cheaper natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs has done little to quell the coal-fixations of the climate-denier in chief. It’s yet another example how the dissonance between Trump’s worldview and the reality of the global energy sector play out.