‚ÄúCan Coal Make a Comeback?‚ÄĚ asks a new¬†report¬†by Columbia University researchers.
Spoiler alert: In its first few pages, the report states that President Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to bring jobs back to coal country or dramatically boost coal production.
Rolling back environmental regulations, as the Trump administration frantically sought to do during its first 100 days, will not ‚Äúmaterially improve‚ÄĚ economic conditions in the nation‚Äôs coal communities, according to the report.
During Trump‚Äôs presidential campaign, he repeatedly vowed to end a ‚Äúwar on coal‚ÄĚ allegedly waged by the Obama administration. But as long as natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline despite the Trump administration‚Äôs plans to roll back Obama-era regulations, the report says.
‚ÄúResponsible policymakers should be honest about what‚Äôs going on in the coal sector?‚ÄĒ?including the causes of coal‚Äôs decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence?‚ÄĒ?rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,‚ÄĚ the report says.
The report was released by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University‚Äôs School of International and Public Affairs. It was authored by Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy; Trevor Houser, a partner at consulting firm Rhodium Group; and Peter Marsters, a research analyst with Rhodium Group.
The report seeks to offer an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal industry to collapse. It then examines the prospects for a recovery of coal production and employment by modeling the impact of Trump‚Äôs executive order directing agencies to review or rescind several Obama-era environmental regulations and assessing the global coal market outlook.
Even coal industry executives and coal country politicians have dialed down their rhetoric in recent months, according to the report. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump supporter, urged him to set more modest goals during the campaign and has warned post-election that there is little chance U.S. production can return to pre-recession levels.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) also¬†cautioned?‚ÄĒ?after the election?‚ÄĒ?that ending the ‚Äúwar on coal‚ÄĚ might not bring jobs back to his home state of Kentucky.
The Columbia University report isn‚Äôt the first to rain on Trump‚Äôs coal parade. In a report released earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance¬†emphasized¬†U.S. coal‚Äôs main problem ‚Äúhas been cheap natural gas and renewable power, not a politically driven ‚Äėwar on coal.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
But words of caution haven‚Äôt stopped Trump from waging a crusade for coal. Two weeks into his presidency, Trump¬†signed¬†a congressional joint resolution eliminating the Department of the Interior‚Äôs Stream Protection Rule finalized in 2016 by the Obama Administration that would have limited the amount of mining waste coal companies can dispose into streams and waterways. In late March, Trump¬†signed¬†the executive order that called on the EPA to ‚Äúreview‚ÄĚ the Clean Power Plan, the agency‚Äôs carbon-reduction plan for new power plants.
‚ÄúMany of these actions will take months for agencies to implement and will be challenged in the courts. But they are clearly designed to communicate Trump‚Äôs commitment to deliver on his campaign promises,‚ÄĚ the Columbia University report said. ‚ÄúIndeed, he signed his March 28 [order] at the EPA in front of a group of coal miners, and after signing, turned to them and said, ‚ÄėC‚Äômon fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You are going back to work.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
In the report‚Äôs best-case scenario for coal that the authors modeled, U.S. production would see only a modest recovery to 2013 levels at just under 1 billion tons a year. In its worst-case scenario, consumption falls from 730 million short tons in 2016 to 688 million short tons in 2020 despite Trump‚Äôs aggressive rollback of Obama administration climate regulations.
Rather than bet on a recovery in coal production, coal communities, governments, and other private and public sector organizations should work together to ‚Äúleverage the other assets‚ÄĚ that exist in coal country to attract investment in new sources of job creation and economic growth, the study said.
‚ÄúThis certainly isn‚Äôt easy,‚ÄĚ the authors wrote. ‚ÄúCoal communities in particular are often geographically remote and lack the infrastructure necessary to attract large-scale investment. Miners and others in the local labor market often lack the skills necessary for jobs that offer the kind of compensation available in coal mining.‚ÄĚ
The federal government could offer plenty of help to accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts, according to the report. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and re-purposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation, it says.
‚ÄúBut this all requires a clear-eyed assessment of the outlook for the coal industry and a commitment to put sustainable solutions ahead of politically expedient talking points,‚ÄĚ the report says.
This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:¬†Mark Hand¬†is a climate reporter for Think Progress.¬†Contact him at¬†email@example.com.