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Why President-Elect Trump Could Disappoint the Coal Miners Counting on Him

November 14, 2016, 11:28 AM UTC
Donald Trump
FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Steve Helber—AP

Most prognosticators thinking about energy policy in a Trump Administration foresee a reversal of the Obama Administration’s efforts to combat climate change and a series of regulatory and legislative adjustments designed to favor fossil fuels and disfavor renewables in energy markets. These predictions make sense given the strong support for Trump in coal-producing states and the fact that the Trump EPA transition team is led by a climate science denier. Trump has said that climate change is a hoax, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” It is also true that a Trump Administration will be able to repeal existing rules regulating pollution from fossil fuel combustion — including the GHG emissions rules under the Clean Power Plan – without the need for congressional approval.

That is a shame because the benefits of those rules exceed their costs by a substantial margin — not just nationally but within each individual electricity market region — as demonstrated in my latest paper with UT Austin Law Professor David Adelman.

But let’s assume that the Trump Administration repeals EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, and repudiates the Paris Accord on climate change. That does not mean that coal-fired power will resume its historically dominant position in the electricity generation mix, for several reasons.

First, states must approve the construction of new electricity generation units and strong majorities in many states remain opposed to coal-fired power, irrespective of what the preferences of a Trump Administration might be. Second, many states actively favor renewables in electricity generation, and even in places that don’t, the word has gotten out that coal combustion is far deadlier to humans than any other electric generation source — including natural gas. Consequently, plans to build new coal-fired power stations will meet a mountain of resistance everywhere.

True, the repeal of the Clean Power Plan and the mercury rule could delay the demise of the hundreds of old and aging existing coal-fired power plants on the electric grid. Repeal will enable some to avoid the installation of new equipment that would control emissions of mercury and air toxins or to delay closure that would have been forced by state implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

But these delays will have only a marginal effect because coal-fired power will find it increasingly difficult to compete in modern electricity markets. Utility-scale wind, solar and natural gas-fired power are each cheaper today than coal-fired power and that gap is growing wider. Irrespective of federal regulation, these competitors will continue to crowd out coal. Even in states that wish to favor coal-fired power, it will be difficult to convince ratepayers that they ought to pay more for electricity from coal than they could pay for electricity from alternative sources.

Voters in coal producing states who believed Trump on the campaign trail when he told them that he would bring back coal mining jobs will be disappointed. To borrow a phrase from Bruce Springsteen, those jobs are going, “and they ain’t coming back.”

On the other hand, voters concerned about climate change remain concerned about reliance on natural gas because natural gas (methane) is itself a potent greenhouse gas. It is a tricky issue in some ways because inexpensive natural gas has driven reductions in much more heavily polluting coal-fired power and may be the most efficient source of backup power in a future grid dominated by renewables.

The Environmental Defense Fund has been doing the most level-headed and intellectually honest work on this issue, and the EPA has been working toward rules that would force the industry to reduce leakage from natural gas infrastructure. Those rules are in jeopardy now.

It seems likely, that for the next four years voters, NGOs, and state officials who care about climate change will have to fight a multi-front war against an administration that, frankly, doesn’t care about the issue. This federal policy reversal will be discouraging to many, particularly since conventional wisdom suggests that American action on climate change is a necessary predicate to strong action by China and India.

However, perhaps, as others such as UCLA Professor Ann Carlson have suggested, China may see the United States’ withdrawal from international leadership on this issue as an opportunity to fill an important role on the international stage, and enhance its influence and stature as an emerging great power. Time will tell.

David Spence is Professor of Law, Politics & Regulation at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches in both the McCombs School of Business and the School of Law.