Can Trump Make Coal Great Again?

After more than a year in the works, President Trump’s proposal for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants is out. His plan, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, would impose far less stringent standards on coal-fired power plants than President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which Trump put the brakes on. Last year, when announcing several executive orders aimed at easing government regulation of the coal industry, the president declared that “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal” – a reference to his predecessor’s regulatory approach.

First, a quick rundown on Trump’s power plant regs and how they differ from what Obama tried to do:

States would be responsible for regulating their power plants’ carbon emissions, whereas Obama’s CPP would have given each state a target for reducing emissions consistent with a nationwide goal.

Owners of coal-fired plants could improve plant efficiency to keep them running longer and get more electricity from each ton of coal burned. The CPP would have encouraged utilities to use less coal and more natural gas and renewable energy.

Carbon emissions wouldn’t decline by nearly as much as they would under Obama’s plan, but are projected to decrease modestly. Trump’s EPA projects CO2 emissions will decline by between 13 million and 30 million tons in 2025, or 1.5% of the current level, compared to no regulatory action being taken.

Coal industry supporters cheered Trump’s proposal while environmentalists jeered it. National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn stated that the plan “respects the infrastructure and economic realities that are unique to each state, allowing for state-driven solutions, as intended by the Clean Air Act, rather than top down mandates. It also embraces American innovation, by encouraging plant upgrades.” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, was rather more succinct, calling Trump’s proposal “a sham” that doesn’t address the risks posed by climate change.

I’ll leave those arguments to others. But what about the practical effects of Trump’s plan, assuming it survives the inevitable legal challenges?

There’s no question that the coal industry has been hurting for a long time. Back in 2005, according to Department of Energy data, coal-burning power plants supplied 50% of the nation’s electricity. Last year: Just 30%, mostly because of mounting competition from natural gas, which has become the top fuel for power generation. In 2005, the U.S. burned a massive 1.1 billion tons of coal. Last year: Just 717 million tons, the lowest figure since the early 1980s. According to the feds, in 2005 coal mining employed about 80,000 workers. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 52,000.

Coal’s struggles significantly reduced energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. Shifting from a coal-heavy fuel mix to one more reliant on natural gas, which emits less CO2 than coal to produce the same amount of power, has caused the utility sector’s emissions to fall by 28% since 2005, according to the EPA.

Will Trump’s regs revive the ailing coal industry? I put that question to Joe Aldina, Director of U.S. Coal Analytics at S&P Global Platts. “In the short term, this doesn’t move the needle at all” for boosting coal demand, he says, because of the competition posed by cheap natural gas. In other words, just because utilities can more easily burn coal now doesn’t mean they will if it isn’t the most economical choice.

But Trump’s rule change “will have a modest impact in the long term” because coal usage will decline by less than what would have happened under Obama’s CPP rules. Aldina thinks that coal’s 30% share of the electricity market will decline further, but only gradually over the next several years. He also notes that while the ACE regs make it easier to upgrade existing coal-fired plants to run more efficiently and generate more power, federal regulations still effectively bar building new coal plants. And there is little sign that utilities want additional coal plants, anyway.

That means that the nation’s fleet of coal power plants will likely keep shrinking. Many were retired because of Obama’s more-stringent CO2 and air quality rules, plus the competition from natural gas. The Department of Energy expects almost 10% of the nation’s remaining coal-fired generating capacity to shut down between now and 2020. Utilities can’t build new plants (even if they wanted to), so U.S. coal consumption will probably continue slipping.