“They voted for Trump because he said he’d bring back coal. It’s not happening,” Blair Zimmerman, a Democratic Greene County Commissioner and former coal miner, told CNN’s business website Money, on Jan. 10. “There’s not been any significant change in the industry since he’s taken over.”
But the Trump administration has made many policy changes to attempt to boost coal. Trump’s administration has rolled back several environmental regulations, many of which were specially requested by Murray and his company. On Jan. 9, The New York Times reported that just weeks before the inauguration, Murray, who owns coal mines in Washington County, provided Trump with a wish-list of environmental regulations he wanted ended. Murray told PBS’s Frontline that Trump has already enacted many of his suggestions.
Trump’s Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, proposed a plan to subsidize struggling coal power plants, but the plan was rejected by a mostly Trump-appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC cited that the current tariffs on these coal-fired power plants were not unjust or unreasonable.
Feaster says that Trump’s attempt to subsidize coal and his acquiescence to a coal CEO’s request shows that coal is facing intense competition in the energy market.
“It plays really well to stand up for coal, there is cultural resonance in all of Appalachia,” says Feaster. “But there is a difference in politics and economics, and that is the problem with the coal industry. There are huge coal reserves … you could burn them for the next 150 years. But if it is not [economically viable], it doesn’t matter.”
Feaster says that in the Pittsburgh region, coal is getting beat out by natural gas. Drilling for natural gas, particularly through hydrofracturing, experienced huge growth from 2012-2017 in Appalachia, including areas in southwestern and northern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural-gas production in Appalachia increased by more than 14 billion cubic feet per day from 2012 to 2017. Dozens of new fracking wells have been drilled in Southwestern Pennsylvania during this time.
“The coal industry has intense competition, and that is not likely to change,” says Feaster. “Its most direct competitor, natural gas, has seen a big growth in production in the Appalachian region.”
Rachel Gleason, director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, a pro-coal industry group, admits that natural gas is coal’s biggest competitor and that its growth has hurt the coal industry. Even so, she sees positive signs for coal in the region.
She says that coal is a more resilient source of power for the region’s electrical grid than natural gas, since coal can be stockpiled at power plants. Gleason adds that it’s important to have coal as a power source so the region maintains a “diverse” energy portfolio. Gleason says coal for power plants will maintain a presence in Southwestern Pennsylvania for this reason.
And Gleason also sees growth in metallurgical coal as encouraging. “We did see some rebounding in the metallurgical coal market,” says Gleason. “And that [market] has been holding rather steady.” Metallurgical coal is used in the production of steel and is mostly exported to Asia, says Gleason. It’s different than thermal coal, which is used in power plants to produce electricity.
In Cambria County, in Central Pennsylvania, metallurgical coal mines have seen an increase in production compared to 2016 and 2015. In 2017, Cambria County’s producing mines have added 25 jobs. Yet, overall, there are five fewer coal-mine jobs than there were there in 2015.
But Gleason admits that coal is not going to rebound at levels that would add a significant amount of jobs. “I would say we are probably steady at this point,” says Gleason of coal jobs.
And even though many recognize that coal jobs are unlikely to return in large numbers, the coal industry is still upping its production and profits. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, mines produced more than 2.1 million tons more in 2017 compared to 2015. However, the region lost 185 coal jobs over that time span.
Business-news website Bloomberg reported in October that coal production in the U.S. was up 11 percent in the first nine months of 2017. Some companies like Warrior Met Coal, in Alabama, posted large enough profits in 2017 that it announced plans to pay out hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders.
Feaster says even if coal companies do better in terms of production, thanks to fewer regulations and government agencies helping them, coal-mine owners are still going to focus on profits over hiring more workers. Feaster says this is typical behavior for the coal industry. “As they talk about coal mining, they are also laser-focused on efficiency and cutting jobs. People … are going to focus on the efficiency.”