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US coal considers best ways to capitalize on 'new lease on life' under Trump

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US coal considers best ways to capitalize on 'new lease on life' under Trump

Despite fierce support for coal from the Trump administration, industry representatives indicated at a recent gathering that they are still seeking strategies to address the challenges facing the sector.

"Coal was not set free by this election," panelist Luke Popovich, former spokesman for the National Mining Association, said during an Aug. 7 session at the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies conference in New Mexico. "It got a reprieve, an opportunity for a second chance to assess itself and see how it can earn a permanent get-out-of jail pass. The question to me is how does coal use this new opportunity, this new lease on life."

President Donald Trump has rolled back regulations and removed a shroud of fear that new regulations could make life for coal producers even tougher. However, at the conference, the sector grappled with issues coal still faces, including declining domestic demand for thermal coal as utilities continue to shut down coal-fired power plants.

"The state of play for coal continues to be encouraging from a policy and regulatory standpoint," American Coal Council CEO Betsy Monseu told the crowd. "I continue to be gratified by the amount of outreach from the administration and the engagement. Even more than a year and a half in, I'm sometimes surprised by the contacts ACC is receiving and the receptivity to our requests and our inquiries."

Still, the sector must start looking for new ways to communicate its message to the public to have a sustainable future, Popovich said, adding that issues with public sentiment and problems like cheap natural gas are not likely to go away anytime soon.

"I don't think coal should adopt the same approach it has broadly used in the past because quite simply, the conditions that allowed coal to prevail in the past no longer exist," Popovich said. "To deny this, I think, is magical thinking."

One major policy pushed by the coal industry lately is an effort to secure payments or other incentives for baseload or dispatchable power generators using fuels such as coal and nuclear that would help those fuels compete with other energy sources. While Trump and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry have expressed support, none of the proposals to boost aging coal and nuclear plants have come to fruition.

Tony Clark, a former commissioner with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said in his keynote address that part of the reason the administration has yet to follow up with details on Trump's order to help coal is that it is in many ways uncharted territory for the government's regulation of the electricity sector.

"FERC's never going to adopt reforms that are supporting a particular resource. They may do something with ancillary benefits to a fuel, but it will be based on economics," Clark said, noting that the DOE's latest pursuit of a similar policy on national security grounds has not been publicly detailed by the administration yet. "I suspect it's taking a while for DOE to walk through a resilience plan because the map forward is not clear."