Coal Country Will Be Disappointed in Trump, Climate Action Proponents Warn

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Coal country is going to be disappointed with President-elect Donald Trump, who promised repeatedly to revive the industry while on the campaign trail, two proponents of action on climate change said Tuesday.

Department of Energy Deputy Assistant Secretary David Mohler said Tuesday that Trump’s promises to coal miners will fall short, because competition with cheap natural gas is responsible for the industry’s struggles more than regulations are.

“It’s really tough for me to see how you repeal the price of natural gas,” Mohler said at a National Press Club event on carbon-capture technology.

Trump promised to “save the coal industry” in his first 100 days as president by repealing President Obama’s regulations, including the greenhouse gas-cutting Clean Power Plan. But industry observers have generally cited the U.S. shale boom and its corresponding cheap natural gas as the biggest reason for coal’s recent struggles.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly said last week that it’s “hard to tell” if removing Obama era regulations will immediately bring coal jobs back.

Demand for coal may also decrease in the near future, regardless of federal regulations. In the U.S., a large portion of coal plants are nearing retirement age, and almost no new coal plants are being built. The median-aged coal-fired power plant was built in 1972, according to the Energy Information Administration. And the average retirement age of a coal plant in 2015 was 58 years old.

Other countries, including major coal consumers like China and India, may also start cutting back, or at least slowing the growth of their coal consumption. Both countries signed on to the Paris climate agreement, which went into effect on Nov. 4.

On the production side, Trump’s promises to revive the industry simply don’t jibe with his support for the oil and gas industry, said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina. Inglis became outspoken on climate change and subsequently lost his 2010 re-election bid to Rep. Trey Gowdy. Since then, he has advocated for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Trump took advantage of concerns over automation and globalization, but had no real plan to help coal miners, Inglis said.

“It’s either dumb or it’s deceitful, one of the two,” Inglis said. “Which is it? Maybe it’s that you don’t understand what’s caused the loss of those coal jobs, or you’re deceitful. It’s one of the two.”

Inglis said carbon-capture technology can help continue the use of some coal in the power sector, but also cut emissions. But he said proponents should be careful about claiming it will revive the economy in Appalachia.

Adele Morris, a senior fellow and policy director with the Brookings Institution who supports a carbon tax, said the funds from a price on carbon could be used to help revitalize the economy in coal country. But that would take a conscious decision to move away from the coal economy, she said.