Why coal jobs aren't coming back, despite Trump's actions

Coal country afraid Trump will repeal black lung benefits with Obamacare
Coal country afraid Trump will repeal black lung benefits with Obamacare

President Trump's "America First" energy plan makes clear that the White House is committed to "reviving" the country's long-suffering coal industry.

It's part of Trump's effort to live up to his campaign pledge to coal miners, whom he has told: "Get ready, because you're going to be working your asses off."

As soon as this week, Trump could back up that campaign talk with real action. His energy plan, which appeared on WhiteHouse.gov just minutes after President Obama stepped down, promises to eliminate regulations that have been "harmful" for coal and other energy industries.

For instance, observers believe Trump could swiftly issue an executive order lifting the Obama administration's moratorium on coal leasing of federal lands.

Despite Trump's best intentions and regulation-busting actions, experts don't believe they will be enough to save coal.

That's because coal has a fierce competitor in the form of natural gas. It's cheap, it's clean and there's a ton of it in the U.S. Plus, Trump himself supports expanded drilling of U.S. shale, the chief source of the boom in natural gas.

"The coal jobs aren't coming back," said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University College of Law.

He called it "nonsense" to think lighter regulation will change that. "The coal industry is being pounded by market forces. It's not regulation," he said.

Even Robert Murray, the CEO of the largest U.S. private coal miner, thinks Trump is going to have a hard time keeping his coal promises.

Coal employment "can't be brought back to where it was before the election of Barack Obama," the Murray Energy CEO recently told CNNMoney, adding that he asked Trump to "temper" his coal promises.

But that doesn't mean Trump won't try. Here are several areas of regulation that Trump could take action on soon:

robert murray coal energy quote

Related: Top coal exec to Trump: 'Temper' your job promises

Leasing on federal lands: Without help from Congress, Trump could easily lift the moratorium Obama placed on coal leasing on federal lands. While such a move could help a bit long-term, experts don't think it'll be a game-changer that helps struggling coal workers get back on their feet immediately.

Climate Action Plan: The White House website calls out Obama's Climate Action Plan as a "harmful and unnecessary" policy Trump wants to eliminate. The 2013 plan focused on three areas: cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing infrastructure for the impacts of climate change and making the U.S. a global leader on efforts to combat climate change.

Waters of the U.S.: The Trump energy plan also mentioned this water-pollution rule as another example of excess regulation. Also known as the "Clean Water Rule," this 2015 EPA rule gives the government the authority to protect ponds, wetlands and other small bodies of water from pollution.

Even though the rule didn't create new permitting requirements, some polluters like coal companies claim it's regulatory overreach. In fact, Murray Energy is still involved in a 2015 lawsuit against the government aimed at stopping the Clean Water Rule.

Clean Power Plan: Aimed at meeting America's commitments under the Paris agreement, the Clean Power Plan requires that by 2030 power plants cut their carbon emissions by 32%.

That means dumping coal for cleaner energy like natural gas. If CPP takes effect, U.S. coal production will shrink by another 26% through 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But CPP is being challenged in court and experts believe Trump may try to dismantle or choose not to enforce it. Repealing CPP won't be easy because it's already a final rule. Gutting it would create an uproar from environmentalists.

Even if CPP goes away, the EIA isn't forecasting a coal boom -- it sees coal production flat through 2040.

"Scrapping the Clean Power Plan may slow the decline of coal, but it's not going to bring coal back," said Jason Bordoff, a Columbia University professor and former Obama energy adviser.

Coal's share of electricity generation stood at 48% in 2008. Last year, it fell to just 30.4%, causing coal production to take its biggest plunge on records going back to 1949, according to the EIA.

shrinking coal power

Related: Uranium stocks are booming, thanks to Trump

There's also been a dramatic wave of coal-fired power plants that have been put out of commission.

"Once those plants are gone, you're not going to bring them back," said Rob Barnett, senior energy policy analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

"It's going to be very difficult to reboot the coal industry under Trump," Barnett said.

That's why Von Nostrand of West Virginia University said Trump's efforts should be focused on helping struggling coal miners by protecting their pensions and health benefits.

"Will coal come back to the level of 20 or even 10 years ago? I have my doubts," said Sheila Hollis, a partner specializing in energy matters at law firm Duane Morris.

"But I hope and pray there is some real serious assistance for coal miners," she said.

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