Donald Trump’s pledge during the 2016 presidential campaign to save the coal industry helped him assemble strong support in coal states such as West Virginia and Kentucky.
Once in office, Trump loosened regulations for the industry and was a big cheerleader on the hustings for coal. He revoked the Stream Protection Rule; signed an executive order to begin dismantling the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration policy that sought to limit carbon emissions; lifted a temporary ban on new coal leasing on federal land; and pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1.
However, there is only so much that one president can do to save an industry besieged by global trends that put coal at a disadvantage in the marketplace.
Here’s a look at total output for the coal industry, under both President Barack Obama (in blue) and Trump (in red). The data comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s industrial production index, which tracks monthly changes in inflation-adjusted output for the sector.
The chart shows a slow but consistent decline in output for the coal sector.
Employment in the coal sector has fared better, though it’s still only treading water. This chart shows the employment level in coal mining under both presidents.
Under Trump, the industry did halt its years-long employment decline under Obama. But coal employment has remained at roughly the same level during Trump’s tenure, with the future uncertain due to the coronavirus pandemic.The big problem facing coal is that utilities in the U.S. and other countries have for years been shifting away from coal and toward natural gas and renewable energy sources. This shift has been driven by both price concerns and worries about coal’s carbon content, which has been linked to climate change.
While China has recently signaled an increase in coal use to help the recovery from the coronavirus-driven recession, that is an exception from global trends. Two dozen U.S. power companies, including Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co., have pledged net-zero emissions by mid-century, and no new coal plants are planned for construction, according to E&E News.
And because these changes require utilities to make sizable capital investments, they are not easy to reverse.”Loosening environmental regulations hasn’t really helped much, as switching away from coal is driven by market rather than regulatory factors,” said Anna Mikulska, a fellow at Rice University’s Center for Energy Studies. “The cost of natural gas and renewable power has declined steadily, and coal cannot compete. Many coal companies, including Murray Energy, filed for bankruptcy last year.”At most, Trump’s extensive deregulatory efforts have reversed the employment freefall under Obama and postponed coal’s day of reckoning. It’s not exactly a strong comeback, but it’s enough to rate this promise a Compromise.
This piece was originally published by Politifact.