By Sterling Burnettt
October 1, 2017 - What a difference presidential leadership can make, for good or ill, for an industry’s fortunes.
Before he was elected president, Barack Obama promised to bankrupt coal companies, and after eight years of his administration’s anti-energy policies, that pledge turned out to be one of the few promises he kept. Obama imposed regulations limiting coal mining near streams and on mountain tops, allowed cities to block the expansion of coal export terminals and rail lines, and enacted limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, including many that were not justified by any reasonable calculation of human health benefits. His policies contributed to massive job losses in coal country, the premature shuttering of vital coal-fired power plants, and were a factor in profitable coal companies being forced to file for bankruptcy.
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump promised he would enact policies that would end the “war on coal” launched by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, halting or slowing the loss of jobs related to coal mining and coal-fired power plants, and he is doing just that.
Coal’s virtue is its reliability and abundance; America has a coal supply beneath U.S. soil that could last 200 to 400 years. While many coal-fired power plants have closed because they are unable to compete with low-cost gas-fired power plants, dozens of coal-fired power plants and mines were shuttered prematurely under Obama due to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, policies Trump has started to reverse.
For instance, in its first use of the Congressional Review Act under Trump, Congress halted a so-called “Stream Protection Rule” imposed by Obama that would have threatened over one-third of the nation’s coal-mining jobs. The Interior Department’s own reports show the rule was unnecessary, since coal mines have virtually no offsite impacts and lands are being restored successfully under existing federal and state regulations.
Trump also issued two “Energy Independence” executive orders affecting coal. One ended a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and the second declared federal agencies should no longer consider speculative climate change impacts when implementing federal contracts, issuing permits, or formulating planned uses of federal lands.
At Trump’s direction, EPA is in the process of reviewing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and the expectation is the Trump administration will rescind or significantly reshape its limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from existing and new power plants.
Trump’s early energy actions have paid job dividends in coal country. The Department of Labor reported mining jobs in America grew by 11,000 in March and by another 7,000 in May. In June, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the United States had since the beginning of 2017 added more than 50,000 jobs throughout the coal supply and use chain.
Additionally, under Trump’s leadership, the first and second largest coal companies in the United States, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, which had been forced into insolvency in part by Obama’s climate policies, emerged from bankruptcy. And in June, Corsa Coal Company opened the Acosta Mine, the first new coal mine to open in the past six years.
In early September, Paringa Resources announced it was building a new coal mine in Kentucky, which it expects to begin producing coal in mid-2018. Paringa is also constructing another mine, which will begin producing by early 2019. In an interview on FOX Business News, Parinaga’s CEO, Grant Quasha, credited the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations on coal production and use for helping him secure the funding needed for the project.
“All we had to do was raise the money,” Quasha said. “On the back of the Trump administration coming into the Oval Office and ending the war on coal, we were able to successfully raise approximately $40 million worth of financing in the Australian equity markets to help build out this mine.”
The coal industry has also benefitted from a boom in coal exports since Trump took office. U.S. coal exports to Europe have risen by 70 percent compared to the first quarter in 2016, while exports to Asia have risen by approximately 50 percent. Driven primarily by the growth in exports, coal production in the United States has increased by 14 percent since December 2016, and revenue at publicly traded U.S. coal companies grew by 19 percent in the first half of this year compared with the same period one year ago.
I have no love for coal — nor for any other particular source of energy, for that matter. I don’t think coal should be subsidized, but I also don’t think it should be discriminated against by the government, which uses harmful regulations that raise electric bills but do nothing to protect human health or the environment.
Americans should have access to reliable, relatively inexpensive energy sources that can power the conveniences that make modern life modern. Coal’s virtues are its domestic abundance, relative affordability, and reliability as a source of fuel — characteristics solar and wind power just can’t match, even though they continue to receive massive subsidies from the government.
One day — probably long after I’m dead — other ways to generate electricity will arise that, like coal and natural gas, are cheap and reliable. When that occurs, coal and natural gas will likely fade into history, as they should under those circumstances. Until then, three cheers for coal and the coal industry’s nascent recovery!
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.