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Trump's EPA pick offers past at odds with coal, but industry optimistic

The U.S. coal industry remains bullish about the selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the U.S. EPA by President-elect Donald Trump despite previous comments at odds with the industry's view on its recent challenges.

Pruitt was selected by Trump earlier this month, promising a staunch advocate against Obama administration regulations often cited as detrimental to the coal industry. As attorney general in Oklahoma, Pruitt led legal challenges to the EPA's Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule, allowing some confidence that he would prove to be an ally for energy producers in Washington, including the beleaguered coal sector.

However, in his capacity as attorney general, Pruitt also made comments at odds with the coal industry's position on what has been the largest cause of its downturn in recent years.

Earlier this year, while giving testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology's Subcommittee on Environment regarding the impact of the EPA's carbon rule on states, Pruitt offered a take on the shift away from coal in the nation's energy mix.

"As EIA has concluded, it was 'a shift in the electricity generation mix' away from coal and toward natural gas that drove the reductions in emissions," he wrote in submitted testimony. "This didn't happen as a result of the heavy hand of the EPA. Rather, it happened because of fracking and the positive market forces that those sorts of Oklahoma innovations create. As natural gas becomes increasingly affordable, it becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to coal."

While competition from natural gas is broadly accepted by the coal industry as a contribution to the industry's competitiveness, the sector has focused primarily on the impact of EPA regulations and the administration's "war on coal" over the last eight years.

Despite this position and Pruitt hailing from a state primarily focused on natural gas production, coal advocates remain confident in Trump's choice to help counter what they see as burdensome federal oversight.

"Attorney General Pruitt will bring a much needed and welcomed common sense regulatory attitude when he becomes the next EPA Administrator, which will be in stark contrast to his predecessors over the last eight years," said Ohio Coal Association President Christian Palich.

Palich praised Pruitt's record of pushing back on the administration's "war on coal," calling him a "loyal soldier in this war that has affected so many in coal country."

"His steadfast leadership against EPA's radical, illegal 'Clean Power Plan' shows he understands how important a role affordable and reliable coal-fired electricity will play in America's energy future," Palich said.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said Pruitt's focus on natural gas is understandable given that he is from Oklahoma, "but that doesn't exclude the pernicious impact that regulations have also had, an impact even academic studies have underscored."

"I think it's too early to speculate on how he would behave if confirmed," Popovich told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "But it's encouraging to hear him express his deep misgivings about EPA's regulatory excesses – echoing our views and those of attorneys general from more than half of the states."

Marking a rare moment of agreement with coal interests, Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said Pruitt will prove to be an ally of the industry despite his past comments and proximity to the natural gas sector.

"This is why it's very important to separate rhetoric from action," Nilles said. "If you look at what Pruitt has done over the last six years in Oklahoma, he has been fighting tooth and nail to keep coal burning in the state. So if he's there talking about how coal can't compete with wind and cleaner energy sources like gas, his actions have been to prop up coal burning."

"His actions speak far louder than words. He has sued to stop every rule impacting the coal industry," Nilles added. "The notion that he has been standing up against coal for Oklahoma natural gas – that is just false."