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Trump's Cabinet takes shape as coal awaits new administration

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Trump's Cabinet takes shape as coal awaits new administration

After years spent battling the Obama administration over energy and environmental policies blamed for the industry downturn, coal is now welcoming a new president who it hopes will come through on promises to revive the sector and "put miners back to work."

This week, President-elect Donald Trump continued to piece together his incoming administration in a way that many in the coal industry hope will help revive the ailing domestic sector and reverse years of declining revenue and demand.

In the days leading up to Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, the Republican's nominees to lead a host of federal agencies faced congressional committees on their records and plans for the coming administration. For coal advocates, the most important hearings centered on Trump's picks to head the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. EPA, which has been a favored target of industry leaders for years.

While Interior nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., faced little direct opposition, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt garnered significant protest at his hearing to lead the EPA, most notably over his involvement in a series of lawsuits targeting the agency in recent years.

In his capacity as attorney general, Pruitt brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the EPA's regional haze rule, arguing that it amounted to regulatory overreach by the agency. When questioned, Pruitt said he believed that some air and water quality issues cross state lines.

Noting in his opening statement that he handled "weighty issues" in his role as attorney general, Pruitt said a state's top legal officer should not succumb to personalizing matters.

During his hearing, Pruitt did outline plans for rolling back the contentious EPA Clean Power Plan, a primary target of legal and political challenges by coal supporters in recent months.

While much of this week's attention was focused on what the new Cabinet would look like, the outgoing administration still had a few plans in store. In one of its final actions under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved the expansion of operations at the Colowyo mine in Colorado, a vital source of coal for a Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. coal plant.

Despite hopes that the incoming administration will prove to be beneficial for the coal sector, some industry advocates have expressed caution about just what Trump will be able to do while in office.

"None of it can be reversed. None of it," Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray said of coal's precipitous production decline in a recent interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence. "This is permanent destruction by Obama and his Democrat supporters."

On a more local level, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that simply rolling back Obama administration's environmental rules — a promise by Trump — will not be enough to revive the coal industry in eastern Kentucky.

While all eyes are trained on Washington to see what the incoming administration will be able to accomplish for the coal sector, some state legislators are busy with efforts of their own to shape their local industries, including a Montana bill that would divert some coal severance tax funds to infrastructure and a Wyoming effort to cut the severance tax rate for coal.

Although they are still targeting a federal rule, a number of states filed suit this week to challenge the Obama administration's Stream Protection Rule. The challenge to the rule is being led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

According to a news release from Morrisey, many of the states also asked Congress to revoke the rule.

In an another step toward finally emerging from bankruptcy protection and taking part in any possible recovery, Peabody Energy Corp. outlined its financial projections for the next five years this week, projecting stockholder profit for four of the next five years out of bankruptcy.

However, the coal giant could face some pushback after a federal bankruptcy watchdog said a judge should not grant the company relief since proposed changes lock in exorbitant payments before creditors can vote on the full reorganization plan, a necessary step before emergence.

In a decision that could shape how prosecutions are sought for executives, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed the conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, spelling out that those at the top of an organization are subject to penalties, including incarceration, to deter prioritizing production over safety.