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Coal setting stage, tempering expectations ahead of Trump's climate action

As the coal sector prepares to welcome a long-awaited rollback of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, industry advocates are setting the stage for what comes next and in some cases, tempering expectations.

Billed by the Trump administration as an executive order driven by the prospect of job creation and energy independence, the expected rollback of the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan is shaping up to be a welcome respite from regulatory pressure many have blamed for a multiyear industry downturn.

"All of the regulatory and programmatic issues were akin to death of coal by a thousand cuts," said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The [CPP] represented a knockout punch. This program was the pinnacle of President Obama's war on coal and make no mistake about it it would have decimated the coal industry and hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs around the country."

Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, told S&P Global Market Intelligence the plan's reversal was vital to creating a "new normal" for U.S. coal, allowing it to compete on a "level playing field" with other energy resources.

"[After the order is signed], our two top issues facing the coal industry are now history," Palich said, referencing the CPP and the Stream Protection Rule, which Trump repealed in February. "And the regulatory agenda is starting to be whittled away."

"Overnight, is there going to be a huge change in jobs? Is there going to be a coal plant breaking ground on Wednesday morning? I doubt it, but it's going to be a better chance and a better opportunity than it's been the last eight years," he said.

However, some industry supporters have cautioned against expecting too much immediate relief from the executive action, especially when it comes to jobs.

Throughout the last year and the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the industry's most vocal opponents of the Obama administration's approach to environmental and energy policy, Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray, warned against expecting a full return of industry jobs.

Murray reiterated his comments in a phone call March 27, telling S&P Global Market Intelligence that while a regulatory rollback will help curb the "destruction" of the coal industry, it will not be enough to provide long-term job growth in the sector. This progress, he explained, will require broader economic growth beyond the coal industry.

"I have suggested to Mr. Trump that he temper his expectations as to how many jobs he can bring back," Murray said, noting the lingering impact of Obama administration regulations. "We've got to overturn those regulations get them stopped before we can decide to bring the coal industry back."

Murray suggested that the coal sector has the potential to add jobs in future, but this would be determined not just by regulatory action, but "how many jobs [Trump] can create" as a result of broader economic growth.

Despite urging caution, Murray celebrated Trump's planned action, noting that he would be in attendance when the president signs the order.

Palich said that while he would not comment on Murray's assessment of the potential impact on jobs, he allowed that it was unclear whether the CPP reversal would result in a full return of industry labor.

"We do believe that jobs can be created," Palich said. "But is it going to be the 1950s again? I don't think anyone's saying that." Palich added that he viewed the preservation of jobs that he believed would otherwise be threatened under a Clinton administration as job creation.

"It's all how you define job creation," he said. "If we stay at the [current number of employed miners], we're still creating jobs because those jobs would have gone away if we didn't have a president like President Trump."

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, challenged the focus on Murray's jobs comments, suggesting critics are "cynically exploiting honest appraisals of industry’s prospects to suggest we should do nothing to help an industry that has been damaged by federal policy."

"Mr. Murray is right," Popovich said. "No president can ensure an industry’s prosperity in a market-driven economy. That only happens in centrally planned economies and this isn’t one. But just because we can’t get to perfection with a regulatory reset does not mean we can’t get to good or better."

While there is significant hope in the industry that Trump's election will result in a more favorable environment for coal producers, it is unclear whether his actions will have a desired effect on domestic demand. In the weeks after Trump's election, utility plans to retire coal-fired power plants appeared unchanged by the change in administration.

In addition to the EPA's carbon plan, Trump is expected to take action regarding the moratorium on federal coal leasing, which was introduced by the Obama administration in early 2016 to allow for a financial review of the program. Coal advocates, especially those operating in Western states, have called on Trump to cancel the moratorium.