Trump Never Could Save Coal

Coal producer Murray Energy has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The nation’s largest privately held coal mining operation, Murray is merely the latest casualty of a changing energy landscape as consumers shift to cleaner and cheaper sources of power.

Company founder Robert Murray has stepped down as CEO. Murray is a fervent supporter of Donald Trump and donated $300,000 of his own money to Trump’s 2016 campaign coffers. Shortly after the inauguration Murray handed the new president a long list of regulatory changes and environmental rollbacks he wanted, aiming to put coal miners back to work.

Among other things, Murray’s memo proposed ending regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and ozone and mine safety, as well as cutting the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency “at least in half” and overhauling the Labor Department’s office of mine safety.

Murray also wanted the federal government to cut funding for carbon capture and sequestration technology — which Mr. Murray called “a pseudonym for ‘no coal’” — and eliminate a 2009 E.P.A. ruling known as the endangerment finding that was the legal justification for much of the Obama administration’s climate change policy.

The Trump Administration has been happy to oblige Murray for the most part, although a blatant attempt to unfairly force grid operators to favor coal-produced energy failed. Trump has repeatedly declared that “Coal is back!”.  Those words are music to the ears of many, unfortunately they simply aren’t true.

More than 50 coal plants have closed since the 2016 election. In addition to Murray, at least seven other coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in 2019. This past April, for the first time ever, renewable energy sources like solar and wind farms provided more of the US’ electricity than coal. In 2018 demand for coal fell to its lowest level in 40 years, with coal production dropping to its second lowest level since 1978.

Coal cannot compete with cheap natural gas and the plunging cost of solar, wind and other renewables. Power companies continue to abandon coal at an ever-accelerating pace. Coal will provide only 22 percent of U.S. electricity in 2020.

The export market likewise continues to decline, dropping to under 21 million short tons in the third quarter, a 28 percent drop from the same period in 2018. The federal government expects coal exports to keep falling, slipping to 17.3 million by the end of 2020.

The Trump Administration’s deregulatory push simply cannot counteract the forces of the market. The genie is out of the bottle, and that genie is energy produced by cleaner and less-expensive alternatives to coal.

None of this dry, factual data is of comfort to the miners being left to twist in the wind. Their livelihoods, medical care and pensions are vanishing. Conservatives by and large have tried to blame former president Barack Obama’s so-called “war on coal” for the industry’s decline, but the bald fact is U.S. coal production has been dropping since the mid-1980s, albeit with brief spikes here and there.

Robert Murray once called Obama “the greatest enemy I’ve ever had in my life.” As it turns out, the energy market itself is coal’s true enemy. Executive orders and legislation won’t change that.

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