As early as this week, President Trump is expected to take executive action to ease regulations on coal and other fossil fuel industries.
“We’re going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihoods of our great coal miners,” Trump said during last week’s speech to a joint session of Congress.
Yellow signs reading “Trump Digs Coal” were commonly waved at rallies during Trump’s campaign, as the nominee promised to put laid-off miners back to work. The anticipated executive action would do two main things to try and achieve that goal: It would overturn an Obama administration moratorium on leasing coal on federal land; and it would also start the process of rewriting Obama’s signature environmental legacy, the Clean Power Plan, presumably to roll back the plan’s restrictions on carbon emissions from existing power plants.
“It’s wonderful,” said Gail Japp, 65, a coal miner in Gillette, Wyoming. Japp is back working after she and hundreds of others were laid off from coal giant Peabody Energy last year. It’s a temp job running a coal truck – not like the full-time gig she used to have. But she is bullish. When asked if she thinks Trump’s actions will lead her back to full-time work in the next year or two, she said she thought it would be sooner than that.
“I think within the next six months I’ll be back full-time,” Japp said.
“Personally, I hope that’s the case for her,” said Rob Godby, director for the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.
He said the coal industry has a lot of uncertainty right now, and is threatened by cheap natural gas, increasingly competitive renewable energy sources and energy efficient products which have kept electricity demand flat since 2008.
But one factor Godby does feel pretty certain about is that regulations aren’t making a huge difference in coal markets right now.
The Bureau of Land Management points to about 30 projects potentially affected by the coal leasing moratorium currently still in place. But Godby said he didn’t know of any just waiting to get started again if the moratorium dropped by the Trump administration.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says American power generation from coal peaked in 2007. Since then, the equivalent of 71 coal power plants have been taken off line, leaving about 400 coal plants in the U.S. today.
“Unless people start building more coal-fired power plants,” Godby said, “long-term coal demand doesn’t really have anywhere to go.”
Things continue to look really bad for Appalachia with more lost jobs and more mines closing.
There are some bright spots for coal in other parts of the country, though, like Wyoming, where Gail Japp works.
The EIA says production nationally is expected to climb five percent overall by next year, because natural gas prices are expected to go up a little bit. And if President Trump guts the Clean Power Plan, the short term effects won’t be big. But look out further, say to 2030, and Godby said coal production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is predicted to be nearly 40 percent higher without the CPP than with it. But, coal production has fallen so far, that increase would would get coal production in the Powder River Basin back to where it was in 2011.
That leaves a lot of coal miners still in need of a job, right now. As for Gail Japp, she’ll work nights or 12-hour days – she can handle it.
“Well, for what they pay me?” she said. “I dang sure can.”
- Whitehouse.gov talks about reviving the US coal industry in a page detailing President Trump’s “America First Energy Plan.”
- Check out more stories in our ongoing series, “The Future of Coal.”
- The Environmental Protection Agency, now led by Scott Pruitt, recently withdrew an Obama-era request to oil and gas companies, asking for information on methane emissions and equipment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said American power generation from coal peaked in 2011.