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Once and for all: Obama didn’t crush US coal, and Trump can’t save it

A definitive report shows that the “war on coal” is being waged by markets, and it isn’t over.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: U.S. President Donald Trump signs H.J. Res. 38, disapproving the rule submitted by the US Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washing
Trump celebrates the coming increase in stream pollution.
(Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump flicked at a lie about the US coal industry that he began telling early on the campaign trail: that there was a “war on coal,” that coal’s jobs will return, that regulations by the Obama administration are responsible for its ills, and that the measures he has taken in office can reverse its fortunes.

So it is worth repeating, yet again that Trump is wrong on all counts. Job declines in the US coal industry will likely continue, Obama regulations are not responsible for its ills, and nothing the federal government can do, short of declaring martial law and forbidding the closure of coal-fired power plants, can save it.

Trump exploited coal’s cultural resonance in his campaign

Coal has always had strong cultural resonance in the US.

In his campaign, Trump seized on that resonance with an odd kind of fervor, using miners as props in political rallies and promising, again and again, to put them back to work. He has managed to make the fate of coal miners a synecdoche for the fate of the white working class writ large.

What’s distasteful is that Trump has won the allegiance of coal communities by reinforcing and amplifying the lie they have been told by right-wing media and politicians for years: that Obama is responsible for the coal industry’s (and their) recent woes.

It’s not true. Easily available information shows its not true. But it is a convenient lie, one that riles up a reliable political constituency and serves as a bludgeon in the culture war.

trump and coal

It is not, however, a benign lie. The struggles facing Appalachian coal country are very real. Unemployment, ill health, drug addiction, stress, and depression have ravaged the region. Now thousands of retired coal miners are in danger of losing their pensions and health care benefits.

(Guess who has refused to schedule a vote on a bill that would address that crisis? One Addison Mitchell McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate. Guess who had a plan to funnel $30 billion to suffering Appalachian communities? One Hillary Rodham Clinton, the competent, boring president America might have had, if not for her emails.)

It does people in the region no good to believe that coal jobs will come roaring back once pesky pollution regulations are overturned. It sets them up for more disappointment and wastes time and energy they could be devoting to finding a new and better future for their communities.

So let’s put this story to rest once and for all, with numbers. Let’s look at what has happened to US coal, its future prospects, and what Trump can and can’t do for it.

Helpfully, the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy released a superb report on this subject back in April 2016, authored by Trevor Houser, Jason Bordoff, and Peter Marsters. It is a close empirical analysis of coal’s history, what has happened to it recently, and what is responsible. Also: great graphs. It’s really worth reading if you have 50 pages’ worth of curiosity about this stuff, but if you don’t, I’ll cover the highlights.

Coal’s recent decline has been rapid and brutal

Let’s start with the facts to be explained.

In 2011, US coal was riding high, recovering from the recession and planning enormous expansion. Then between 2011 and 2016, it absolutely cratered. US coal production dropped by 27 percent. Domestic demand fell 30 percent. Demand for exports dried up.

The combined market value of the country’s four big coal companies dropped from $33 billion to $150 million (yes, you read that right). Three of the four declared bankruptcy, in the process shedding hundreds of millions in retiree pension and health care obligations. Some 120,000 retired miners and dependents are now at risk of losing what they have left.

And more than 58,000 coal miners and contractors lost their jobs, the latest chapter in the long decline in US coal mining employment.

coal mining employment (CGEP)

Nationally, the loss of 58,000 jobs is not a big deal. (The US economy creates more than 100,000 jobs a month.) But the losses were highly concentrated in mining communities. In Mingo County, West Virginia, for example, overall employment fell from 8,513 to 4,878. Imagine: Half the people in your community lose their jobs in the space of five years, in what is effectively the only local industry.

It left coal communities devastated and desperate.

Exactly what has waged war on coal, and how much

So what’s responsible for this wreckage? Houser et al. set out to put some numbers on it.

They did so by comparing coal’s actual performance with 2006 Energy Information Administration projections, corrected for the decline in overall demand (which the EIA, like everyone else, completely failed to anticipate). Then they did the same for natural gas and renewables. Finally, they “explored how each fuel’s share of total interconnect-level generation varied in 2016 from what the EIA had projected.”

Comparing projections with actual performance, they were able to quantify how much of coal’s projected market share was eaten up by competitors (and other forces). Here are the culprits, the leading brigades in the “war on coal,” listed by size:

  1. Natural gas: 49 percent
  2. Lower-than-expected demand: 26 percent
  3. Renewable energy: 18 percent
  4. Obama regulations: 3 to 5 percent

The impact of regulations was calculated somewhat differently, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s projected costs, which historically have tended to be much lower than industry’s projections but much higher than actual after-the-fact costs. And the researchers modeled what would happen if Obama’s most significant regulations simply vanished. In reality, they won’t vanish; they will probably just be weakened after months or years of rulemaking and legal challenge.

So 5 percent should be considered an unrealistically high upper bound for the impact of Obama’s regs. (There’s much discussion of methodological challenges in the report.)

What’s clear is that the “war on coal” was led by cheap, fracked natural gas. Renewables and efficiency played vital supporting roles. Obama’s regulations were, in comparison, a peashooter.

The secret weapon in the war on coal: collapsing Chinese demand

Most discussion of declining demand for US coal focuses on the US electricity sector (which is responsible for 93 percent of domestic coal consumption), specifically the twin booms in natural gas and renewables. And those are indeed significant (if oft-told) stories.

But the most important — and most overlooked — story on coal demand is international.

I wrote a longer post on the subject here, but the TL;DR version is: In the first decade of the 21st century, Chinese demand for coal went through the roof.

international coal demand (CEGP)

For a while, China was able to keep up with demand with domestic coal. But eventually its internal supply lines grew strained, and it started importing more, increasing the price of coal on international markets — particularly metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel (and which Appalachia provides). US exports boomed.

“While only 12 percent of this growth was actually shipped to China,” Houser et al. write, “it was China-driven growth in global coal prices that made US exports to closer markets in Europe and Latin America commercially viable.”

It was exports that were driving the US coal boom in 2011 — and it was exports that account for more than half the decline in demand through 2016.

China’s demand for coal plateaued and recently began declining. Even if it rallies a little here and there (as it did this year), it is never going back to gangbusters growth. (And no, as the report discusses at length, growth in India won’t be enough to make up the difference.)

Coal executives did not see the China pivot coming. At all. They made huge bets on the premise that Chinese demand would grow forever. They screwed themselves.

Well, actually, they’ll be fine — they’re even getting bonuses! (Seriously.) They screwed their workers, the landscapes they operate in, and, as it turned out, US politics.

Trump’s blustery regulatory rollback can’t do much for coal

To find out what Trump could possibly do for US coal demand, the researchers modeled scenarios in which the following Obama rules were simply canceled:

  • EPA’s CO2 standards for new power plants
  • EPA’s CO2 standards for existing power plants (the “Clean Power Plan”)
  • EPA’s methane regulations for new oil and gas production
  • The Bureau of Land Management’s methane regulations for both new and existing oil and gas production on federal lands
  • The Department of Interior’s coal leasing moratorium on federal lands

As I said — and Brad Plumer described in detail — permanently getting rid of those rules will be enormously difficult in practice. It will take years, and the result won’t be no rules but, at best, weakened rules. So this is a theoretical upper bound on what Trump can accomplish with his attack on Obama’s rules.

There’s tons of interesting discussion in the report, but it’s all captured in this graph:

impact of trump’s regulatory rollback (CEGP)

This shows historical US coal consumption and projections of coal consumption in the face of Obama’s rules (or their absence). Those are the red and blue lines.

But note: The red Trump line is the central projection, based on the EIA’s projections of the price of natural gas and renewables. The EIA could well be — and usually has been — wrong about how prices will evolve. There’s enormous uncertainty.

So the shaded red area shows the range of Trump projections, based on scenarios in which natural gas and renewables turn out cheaper (or more expensive) than the EIA expects.

The most notable feature of this result is that the range of uncertainty around the Trump scenario is greater than the difference between the Trump scenario and the Obama scenario. In other words, over coming decades, market trends promise to be more consequential for US coal consumption than all Obama’s rules combined.

And it’s worth remembering that natural gas and renewables have both tended to prove cheaper than EIA projections. Here, for instance, are recent natural gas prices compared with forecasts (“AEO” stands for the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook):

natgas prices vs projections (CEGP)

Projections keep showing prices plateauing or rising; real prices keep falling. The same is true for EIA projections on solar and wind.

If EIA is still underestimating natural gas and renewables — as seems likely — then it is entirely possible that US coal consumption could decline so much that it completely swamps the effect of Trump’s executive order. Just as market developments were primarily responsible for coal’s decline, it is market developments that will primarily determine its future. Trump, like Obama, is wielding a peashooter.

At the very best, Trump’s regulatory assault, if it is coupled with unexpectedly high natural gas and renewable energy prices, could boost US coal consumption back up to 2015 levels.

“The problem,” Plumer wrote in a previous post on this, “is that in 2015, mining employment was still at near-historically low levels. There were only about 63,000 miners in America that year — somewhat higher than today’s levels of 50,000 — but still lower than at any point since the 1980s.”

trump impact on mining employment

In reality, Trump’s regulatory assault is likely to have as many failures as successes. Natural gas prices, renewable energy prices, and overall demand are likely to be beneath projections (again). US coal consumption and coal mining jobs are likely to continue declining. The market’s war on coal will continue.

That is a far cry from Trump’s promises to coal miners.

What coal mining communities actually need to rebound

The report concludes with a short discussion of the kinds of things that might actually help suffering coal mining communities. It touches on a few of the local efforts underway and notes that the federal government can help:

There is a lot the federal government can do to help accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and repurposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation. Expanded broadband access is particularly important as it can overcome the geographic barriers that limit coal communities’ physical access to both suppliers and markets and enable new types of economic activity. Competitive grants can help get nascent economic diversification initiatives off the ground. And the federal government can help provide retirement and healthcare security by passing the Miners’ Protection Act.

(More on the Miners Protection Act — sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and a bipartisan list of 25 other senators — here.)

Trump’s budget proposed to slash funding for many of the existing federal programs that help Appalachia, most notably the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration. Those are just a few of the cuts he favored that would hurt coal communities and workers. Spending has to be cut, after all, to make way for Congress’s enormous tax cut for corporations and the wealthy.

And thus far, Trump has been publicly silent about the threat to miner pensions, though he’s assured Manchin in private that he intends to speak up about it, and he usually keeps his promises, so that’s all good.

The GOP’s loyalty to coal communities seems to extend exactly as far as rolling back pollution regulations, and no further. Coincidentally, rolling back pollution regulations also enriches fossil fuel executives (and disproportionately impacts the health of working-class families). Certainly helping coal communities is never prioritized over, say, high-end tax cuts. At least miners get to appear as props in political rallies, though.

And all the while, Trump just keeps lying to them. The whole GOP does. More than a few Democrats, too.

Whatever solutions might benefit coal communities, surely it must begin with telling them the truth: US coal is not coming back. Coal jobs are not coming back. Imposing more pollution on already-suffering communities won’t change that.

The only way forward is through investment in regional economic diversification and development. It will be a hard road — new industries and opportunities will not grow as fast as coal fell — but it is the only road. Waiting for coal to come back is about as fruitful as waiting for the South to rise again.

It’s time for these communities to hear the truth from those they trust. And if they don’t, it might be time for them to start trusting different people.