Trump Digs Coal… Into an Ever-Deeper Hole

December 10, 2018 | 2:04 pm
Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

Coal, according to President Trump, is coming back.

Beautiful, clean coal.

Coming back.

Through the administration’s rolling back of power plant standards, weakening of coal ash requirements, discounting of mercury reduction benefits, intervening in power markets, opening of backdoors for polluters to emit more, and most recently green-lighting of new coal plants with nary a meaningful pollution reduction requirement to be found.

Indeed, at devastating health, environmental, and economic cost, the Trump administration has gone to bat to bring coal back.

And how has coal fared? Has President Trump traded away the health and welfare of millions for a major lengthening of the coal longevity lifeline?

In fact, he has not. Let’s review.

Coal generation is on the decline

After decades of resource primacy, representing approximately 50 percent of the electricity generation mix as recently as 2008, coal-fired generation has been suffering an unrelenting slide in the face of cleaner and cheaper renewables and natural gas.

Try as they might, the Trump administration has not reversed the fall:

Coal’s long-time dominance of the US electricity generation mix has recently fallen away. Credit: U.S. EIA.

Coal consumption is approaching a four-decade low

Relatedly, new data show that coal consumption is projected to weather its lowest level since 1979. Unfortunately for coal, it remains the case that you can dig it, and you can ship it, but if plants aren’t burning it? Then it’s only coal mine profits that are going up in smoke:

National consumption of coal has been on a sharp decline. Credit: US EIA.

Coal retirements are at an all-time high

According to the Trump administration, overzealous regulators are entirely responsible for the eroding fortunes of coal, motivating the push for all the wide-ranging regulatory rollbacks now underway.

Well, we’re two years in. The administration’s intent is abundantly clear. Handouts to the sector abound. And yet? Retirements have not stopped. In fact, the very opposite—this year marks the second-highest amount of coal-plant retirements ever, and could even end up the highest:

2018 has marked another sky-high year for coal plant retirements. Credit: US EIA.

No new coal plants are coming online

And what about now, as the sector basks anew in this hazy age of free-wheeling air quality pillage and plunder? Have we seen a change in fortune and utilities plotting to bring new coal plants online?

Truly, not even close.

Other than one miniscule unit that’s long been under pursuit in Alaska, there is not a single new coal plant on the horizon. It’s renewables on the rise, and natural gas pushing coal aside:

Additions to the power grid have been nearly exclusively limited to renewables and natural gas. Credit: US EIA.

Trump digs coal, six feet deep

The Trump administration has done everything it can think of to help out coal—up to and including appointing a former coal lobbyist as acting administrator of the EPA—except, of course, the two things that would actually bring coal workers and coal communities relief, as opposed to solely boosting the short-term profits for barons at the top.

So what would a true coal supporter do?

First, actually help the communities and workers who have powered the nation for so long, and who are now at risk of being left behind. Provide for job retraining and economic development and diversification—and do it before the plants and mines have closed. Do it when there’s still a chance to do it. Do it because coal closures are happening, and lying about it just kills precious time. States and localities all across the country are struggling to tackle this reality; a concerted effort from the top could be of immense help.

Second, attempt a bridge to the future as opposed to forcing the sector to careen headlong off a cliff. There is no world in which coal generation makes a major comeback, unless and until it’s coupled with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—and even then, it’s a big-time stretch. The US has an opportunity to lead here; the sector could be advancing CCS technologies that would allow this heavily polluting resource to possibly keep on chugging along in a carbon-constrained world, at home and abroad.

But instead? Alongside a mortifying rejection of climate science on the global stage, the Trump administration has just proposed to undo a critical lever for pushing that technological development by excising CCS from its standards for new coal-fired power plants. Indeed, instead of helping coal, this action smothers hope.

So sure, yes, Trump digs coal! But coal’s not coming back. Because check the fine print—Trump only digs coal six feet deep.

Posted in: Energy

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Julie McNamara is a senior energy analyst with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on policies and measures that facilitate a rapid, sustained, and broadly beneficial transition of our nation’s energy system.