On the day after Tuesday’s election, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney wasn’t exactly overjoyed. But he was pretty optimistic, something coal backers across Appalachia haven’t had much reason to feel in recent years as the industry’s downward spiral has continued.
“We’re certainly encouraged with the Trump victory,” Raney said. “We think that gives us a little spark of hope.”
So much hope, in fact, that Raney predicted West Virginia might soon see its annual coal production rise back above 120 million tons, a figure it hasn’t reached since 2012 and an amount that’s nearly double what recent studies project as likely in future years, even without the emissions rule President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to reverse.
Industry and energy experts doubt Raney’s predictions will ever come true, and remain skeptical that any combination of regulatory rollbacks or other policy shifts from a Trump administration can provide anything that would be considered a significant rebound in Southern West Virginia coal production or regional mining jobs.
“This claim seems far-fetched, given the market forces facing coal: Cheap and abundant natural gas and dramatically falling costs for renewables,” said Jeremy Richardson, a West Virginia native from a mining family who has studied the issue as senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
At the same time, labor and environmental advocates worry about the ultimate impact of Trump’s agenda on workers’ safety and health, water and air quality and — perhaps above all — America’s withdrawal from the global effort brought together by President Barack Obama to try to curb greenhouse gas emissions in time to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and avoid the most severe and potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.
“The U.S. and world are already behind; speed is of the essence, because climate change and its impacts are coming sooner and with greater ferocity than anticipated,” leading climate scientist Michael Mann wrote last week for Scientific American.
Climate scientists note that some of the most troublesome impacts of a warming world are already occurring, including sea level rise, drought and heatwaves, and they say that we are approaching tipping points in planet systems beyond which the world would be locked into an irreversible future of extreme and dangerous warming.
“Every year that we delay action we increase the risk of crossing dangerous thresholds and commit our generation and our children’s to more devastating outcomes,” wrote Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University.
Trump has said that climate change — which the vast majority of the world’s scientists say is caused by fossil fuel emissions and presents a growing threat to our society — is a “hoax” and that it was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
A recent analysis by the firm Lux Research found that Trump’s plans would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent over what would occurr under Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s proposed initatives.
‘It’s all upside’
In an outline of his energy plan just made public in the days after the election, Trump promises to scrap Obama’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate other Obama administration efforts to address climate change. He’s has also promised to back out of last year’s Paris climate agreement, which commits more than 190 counties to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The new plan echoes Trump’s earlier promises to “end the war on coal” and “lift the restrictions on American energy” a move Trump says will “allow this wealth to pour into our communities.”
“It’s all upside: More jobs, more revenues, more wealth, higher wages, and lower energy prices,” the new Trump energy plan says.
Currently, the Obama greenhouse rules, called the Clean Power Plan, are blocked by a U.S. Supreme Court stay won by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and other opponents of the rules. The parties are waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to rule on the merits of Morrisey’s lawsuit challenging the rule.
Regardless of who wins the case is likely headed for the Supreme Court, which is currently split 4-4 between generally conservative and more liberal justices, and is awaiting Trump’s appointment of a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Senate Republicans have refused to hold a hearing or take a confirmation vote on an Obama administration nominee for Scalia’s post.
It’s not yet clear exactly what route a Trump effort to get rid of the greenhouse gas rule will take through the courts or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrative process, or both.
But climate experts fear that doing away with the EPA rules would have far broader impacts by discouraging other nations from following through on their climate change commitments under the Paris agreement.
During his visit to Charleston in May, Trump vowed he would put the state’s miners back to work. His plan for doing so was simple: “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete, so we’re going to take that all off the table, folks.”
Most experts, though, say that while air pollution regulations have played a role, the Appalachian coal industry’s problems are caused more by the rise in competition from cheap natural gas, competition from other coal basins in Wyoming and Ohio, plummeting prices for renewable energy like wind and solar and in Southern West Virginia by the mining out of the easiest-to-get and highest quality coal seams over the last 100 years.
While Trump’s new plan touts the nation’s supply of coal, most experts also say that Trump’s campaign comments that the U.S. has a 1,000-year supply of coal greatly overstates domestic coal reserves.
In the post-election interview, Raney said the Coal Association views things far more optimistically, and thinks that simply having Trump express such strong support for coal will help the mining industry recover.
“That positive attitude from the highest levels of government toward coal makes a huge, huge difference,” Raney said. With Trump in the White House, Raney said, the state is “getting ready to get back to producing 120 million tons of coal a year.”
Last year, West Virginia operators produced just less than 100 million tons of coal. The last time the state produced more than 120 million tons was in 2012, according to industry reports filed with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. As recently as 2008, the state’s total production was more than 150 million tons. Between 2012 and 2015, the average annual number of coal miners working at West Virginia operations dropped from more than 24,000 to less than 17,000, according to those same MSHA reports.
In its most recent forecast for the state’s coal industry, West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research projected a short-term forecast with production dropping to less than 68 million tons this year to showing a slight increase in 2017 to 70 million tons. Over a longer term, the WVU forecast projected the state’s coal output would show a “temperate rebound” between 2018 and 2010, eventually climbing to an annual total of about 75 million tons in 2020.
“Retirements of coal-fired generation will taper off and an expected increase in natural gas prices should allow coal to regain some share of electricity generation, while global market conditions for thermal and met coal should also stabilize,” the WVU report said. “For the remainder of the outlook period, statewide coal production is expected to fall, contracting to less than 67 million [tons] in 2036.”
The report noted that the state’s southern coalfields will account for all of the downward trend in production, and that production in Northern West Virginia — where large underground mines with advanced longwall machines are well positioned to continue mining thick seams that serve nearby power plants with scrubbers and other modern pollution controls — should remain “relatively stable” over the period examined by the study, through 2036.
Those WVU projections, though, are also based on the assumption that the Clean Power Plan that Trump has vowed to reverse, isn’t yet in effect and requiring reduced carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. With that EPA rule in place, the WVU report projected, West Virginia coal output would have dropped to less than 57 million tons by 2036, or about 10 million tons below the baseline projection. Those additional reductions, with the EPA rule modeled as in effect, would have taken place mostly in the state’s nothern coalfields.
“The election does not do anything to change market forces and the decarbonization that is occurring in the electric industry due to basic economics,” said James Van Nostrand, a WVU law professor who closely follows utility and energy issues.
If anything, Van Nostrand said, the natural gas price advantage is likely to grow as the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks relieve the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “of any pressure to slow approval of the current pipeline expansion or to consider downstream environmental impacts of expansion of natural gas production.”
“The economics of wind and solar continue to improve due to technology and, even without production tax credits, will continue to contribute to the fundamental shift underway in the electric industry,” Van Nostrand said. “Similarly, the election does nothing to change the fact that coal production in central Appalachia is less competitive versus other coal-producing regions due to declining productivity per mine and the unavailability of easily accessible coal seams.”
Some experts also warn that some of the economics and climate concerns driving energy system changes around the world will continue, regardless of what the Trump administration does, and that slowing U.S. action will allow the country to fall behind in newer, cleaner technologies.
“The global transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy is unstoppable,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a liberal research organization that advocates climate change action. “As President-elect Trump builds his administration, we expect his team will begin to understand that smart climate action can promote economic growth, bringing good jobs across America’s heartland.”
Despite the election results, the two major electric utilities with operations in West Virginia — American Electric Power and FirstEnergy — did not indicate last week that they plan any changes in the operations that would involve turning to greater use of coal as a result of any moves by a Trump administration.
Todd Meyers, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, said that his company “has no plans at this time to change direction with regards to its generation business, coal or otherwise” based on the outcome of the election.
Meyers said that FirstEnergy would continue to move ahead with its plan to “thoughtfully and expeditiously” move away from competitive electricity markets over the next 12 to 18 months, to regulated ones like West Virginia’s, where utilities are guaranteed a profit.
As part of those plans, FirstEnergy hopes to transfer ownership of its Pleasants Power Plant north of Parkersburg to a West Virginia subsidiary, where the coal-fired facility’s risks would be shifted from FirstEnergy investors to electricity customers FirstEnergy subsidiaries serve in the northern part of the state.
Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for AEP, said that her company did not plan to change its “important transition to support a cleaner energy economy.”
“We are transforming the transmission grid to be responsive to new resources and technologies, while at the same time balancing our company’s resource portfolio to provide new, cleaner energy and technology options for our customers,” McHenry said.
She said that AEP hopes that the Trump administration would support infrastructure investment that “is critical to enable technological advances and a cleaner energy economy.” She said that AEP’s remaining coal-fired units would continue to operate and that “cleaner coal does need to be a part of a balanced energy mix for the future.”
McHenry added, “We hope that this administration will be able to provide economic opportunities in the communities that have been hurt by the environmental, technological and market issues that have reduced coal production.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.