By Mark Trumball
December 14, 2016 - So far, the cabinet picks of Donald Trump send a pretty unequivocal signal in support of fossil fuels, but with an interesting nuance: The emphasis looks to be more on oil and natural gas than on coal.
The cabinet picks, by themselves, don't mean the nation's retrenching coal industry will get a cold shoulder when Mr. Trump takes office in January. But so far, a president-elect who pointedly curried favor with coal communities during the election campaign isn't sending many signals of hope toward miners and their industry.
Instead, oil and gas look like they're getting most of the love.
Scions of oil-rich Texas and Oklahoma are becoming the top official faces of the executive branch when it comes to energy and the environment, punctuated Tuesday by the stunning nomination of an oil CEO – Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil – to be secretary of State. Meanwhile news reports cited transition-team sources saying former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is Trump's choice to head the Energy Department. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was announced last week to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
One exception: News reports Tuesday evening say Trump will tap Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) of coal-producing Montana as to head the Interior Department, where opening federal lands for energy production is a key part of the president-elect’s agenda.
During his presidential campaign, Trump heavily promoted his vision of fossil fuels helping to lead an economic rebound for America, and coal as much as oil or gas was at the center of that pitch.
Flanked by fans holding “Trump digs coal” signs, he visited West Virginia and promised to lift “ridiculous regulations that put you out of business.” He put on a miner’s hard hat. He promised to revive the industry. His stance helped him to turn coal-involved Pennsylvania into a swing state (and win it), and it helped bolster a wider blue-collar appeal that proved central to his election victory.
Whether Trump’s picks represent some grand strategy or not, the reality, analysts say, is that coal jobs are going to be hard to revive, even by a president-elect who voiced concern about carbon emissions or climate change.
“These three nominees certainly represent a Trump administration that is going to pursue an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, and it's going to be particularly favorable toward the oil and gas industry,” predicts Varun Sivaram, an energy security expert in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations. By contrast, he says “cheap natural gas is putting coal out of business.”
To the degree that Trump’s team successfully promotes natural gas, it could even hasten coal’s decline, or at least offset any forward impulse for coal that the new administration can provide.
Slashing coal use is a good thing, by one widely accepted view. A majority of Americans are concerned about the environmental and economic risks of climate change, and reducing coal reliance is one of the surest paths to cutting greenhouse emissions in the US and globally.
Toll on Coal Towns
Still, the human toll of industry changes is large. Major job losses have sent unemployment rates into the double digits in some mining areas. The nation has 54,000 coal mining jobs, down about 8,000 in the past year and 30,000 since 2010. And now funding for miner health and pension benefits is on the line in Congress.
Last week, Democratic senators including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania urged Trump to lobby for legislation that goes beyond a short-term patch to help unionized miners whose benefit funds are running dry. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia is also backing the legislation.
Trump has made at least some overtures to coal communities since his election victory.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia was among the names in circulation as a possible energy secretary.
And West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice (D) said Trump called him recently to talk about how to revive the industry. “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,” Mr. Justice said in a statement.
What could help coal make a comeback?
Despite the marketplace trends, policies can help or hurt at the margins, and coal country is watching eagerly after an election that got its hopes up.
Trump could try to remove a moratorium on new leasing deals for coal mining on federal lands.
The Trump EPA could try roll back some regulations. Anything that undercuts Obama climate change policies could give some breathing room to coal-fired power plants and the mines that feed them. Prominent among those policies is the Clean Power Plan, which regulates greenhouse emissions by calling on states to cut utility emissions.
Some coal companies have welcomed Trump’s selection of Mr. Pruitt for the EPA, since he’s been leading efforts to overturn the Clean Power Plan in court.
A push for exports could potentially help coal, but some observers say the State Department nomination for Mr. Tillerson, steeped in advocacy for the oil industry, may put a damper on such promotion.
“The question is, would any of these steps have an effect in practice” to boost coal meaningfully, asks Nicholas Burger, an energy expert and economist at the RAND Corp. near Washington.
Even if the Clean Power Plan were overturned, he says, states “may decide to continue to disinvest in coal” if they expect that the long-term policy landscape, beyond a Trump administration, will end up favoring cleaner power.
So one open question is whether the incoming administration will go beyond uncertain attempts to revive mining, and mount additional efforts to help bring jobs to coal towns.
Bipartisan Opportunity in Innovation?
To Mr. Sivaram, one promising sign in Trump’s cabinet choices is that both Tillerson and former Governor Perry have voiced strong support for energy research and innovation. Though under Trump this may not be pursued with a deep focus on either coal jobs or climate change, Sivaram sees the potential for research that spans the spectrum – including some benefit for those opposing causes.
One example: Technologies for carbon to be captured and used or stored, rather than released in the atmosphere, could be nurtured. That might not stop coal’s decline in the US, but it would be a technology for potential export to Asian nations like China where coal emissions are a major share of greenhouse gases.
That and other innovation efforts could help Trump make good on his promise to lift the economy, including manufacturing jobs, Sivaram says.
“Energy innovation is crucial to achieving our climate goals,” he says. And whether both sides share climate goals or not, on energy it may be “the only area where you can have bipartisan support.”