By Michael Bastasch
February 1, 2018 - In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump didn’t have much to say on energy policy, but did declare that the “war on beautiful, clean coal” is over.
“We have ended the war on American Energy — and we have ended the war on clean coal,” Trump said before Congress Tuesday night. “We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”
Reporters were quick to fact check Trump’s remarks, but many fact checks miss the mark.
The Washington Post’s Steven Mufson claimed “[t]here has never been a war on American Energy.” Likewise, The New York Times’s Nick Kristof also cast doubt on Trump’s “war on clean coal” comments.
“It’s true that environmental groups have sought to roll back the use of fossil fuels, especially coal,” Mufson wrote. “But the main war on coal — if there has been one — has been waged by the natural gas industry, which has been undercutting coal with cheap prices.”
NPR also criticized Trump’s remarks. Reporter Jeff Brady said “[c]oal has fallen on hard times primarily because it is having trouble competing against cheaper natural gas and renewable energy for generating electricity.”
Brady also said it was “difficult to make the case that there’s been a ‘war on American energy,’ since oil and natural gas production boomed under former President Barack Obama.
That’s all basically true, but misses what the “war on coal” actually is.
Trump’s remarks refer to his administration’s rolling back of regulations on coal country, as well as restrictions on oil and natural gas exploration.
The “war” refers to the regulatory and legal battle over coal-fired power plants and mines. The phrase gained steam around the time of the 2012 presidential election, popularized by Republicans looking for votes in coal country. Trump himself has used the term for years.
Market forces certainly have turned against coal in recent years, and mine job losses have, in fact, been on the decline for decades. But the “war on coal” is really about the political battle over coal at all levels of government.
In the past decade or so, many state governments mandated an increasing amount of their electricity come from renewable sources, like wind and solar. State and federal lawmakers also poured billions of dollars into subsidies and tax benefits for green energy.
Environmentalists took a different tact. Filing lawsuits to force coal-fired power plants to prematurely retire. For example, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign — which, for a time, was funded by a natural gas company — has claimed to have helped close down 266 coal plants.
The Sierra Club’s campaign is now funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent more than $64 million on the effort to end the coal industry.
Democratic states and environmentalists have also joined together to block coal export terminals on the West Coast. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has been sued for blocking a coal terminal project in his state.
The Obama Administration finalized several major regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants, including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). That rule alone was estimated to cost $9.6 billion.
MATS was probably the single-biggest regulatory reason, behind the wave of coal-fired power plant closures. The record wave of coal capacity retirements came in 2015, the first year MATS went into effect.
The Clean Power Plan (CPP) would have forced more coal-fired power plants to close because they emit more carbon dioxide than natural gas plants. When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he would repeal this rule, he said, “The war on coal is over.”