Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Back in May, I discussed Donald Trump’s campaign dubious promises to bring back coal jobs to places like West Virginia and Kentucky. He promised (and continues to promise) that reduced regulation and elimination of the Clean Power Plan will bring back job. Voters in West Virginia bought the claim, and they believed it from incoming governor, Democrat Jim Justice, a billionaire coal magnate.
Trump and Justice spoke the other day, with the Governor-Elect saying in a statement:
“It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work. President-elect Trump made it clear that he won’t forget about West Virginia when it comes to our nation’s energy policies. I will work closely with the President-elect and his administration on clean coal technology, rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal, and growing West Virginia’s other job opportunities.”
How this will work to improve coal jobs remains an open question. Trump has yet to announce his energy-related appointments, which will include the EPA, Department of Energy, and Department of Interior. His energy secretary short list (and possibly Interior) still includes Harold Hamm, CEO of the oil and gas company, Continental Resources. Forrest Lucas (of Lucas Oil) remains on the list, as well. So, how are oil and gas executives going to help coal? Well, by “rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal,” of course. (Note: that is really an EPA issue, not a Department of Energy issue.)
The problem with this for coal country, as I have noted before, is that rolling back these regulations also has the effect of rolling back regulations that impact the natural gas industry, meaning that even as coal gets cheaper, so does natural gas.
Further, there is talk in the administration about opening up more federal lands to coal mining and oil and gas exploration. (This would be a Department of Interior action, not Energy.) This move, too, is curious, as it is hard to see how increased access to more supply is going to move up prices to support the struggling industries. A greater supply of oil or gas or coal will lead to even lower prices. Lower taxes and reduced regulations equals means a lower cost of exploration and production, which leads to more resources and lower prices.
Absent a commitment to increasing the cost of natural gas, coal is simply not going to compete. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, is substantially more flexible, and despite criticisms of the process of hydraulic fracturing, it is environmentally preferable to coal mining. With oil and gas executives playing a large role in the new administration, there is no reason to expect coal will get a preference over natural gas. Perhaps renewable energy sources will be less attractive, though the prices of those sources continues to drop, and natural gas can actually work to facilitate those such energy sources. Recent reports suggest renewables and natural gas are the future. This does not bode well for coal.
Increased research on clean coal would have value. There are still millions of people around the world without access to electricity, and millions more getting power from old coal-fired plants that create health and environmental problems. But that research is not likely to change markets in the near term, and it is not likely to benefit U.S. coal miners as long as cheap natural as remains. And it is expected to remain.
Finally, reduced regulations may help move the energy sector forward more quickly, and it may help facilitate related businesses who use natural resources as a feedstock or energy-intensive processes. That remains to be seen. Any plan that does that, though, still likely leaves coal, and the people who work in the industry, behind. Just saying you will save coal jobs, doesn’t make it true. But apparently it does make some people feel better. I doubt that will last very long.