The U.S. coal sector is still mapping out a future under a presidential administration it hopes can help deliver further relief from federal regulations and foster new technology to bolster the fuel's long-term prospects.
Republican officials, a leader within the U.S. Department of Energy and an Alabama-based coal producer opened "The New Vision for Coal," a conference hosted by the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance. Speakers in the opening session May 21 praised the administration of President Donald Trump for making it easier to be in the coal business.
"Our president is absolutely a breath of fresh air for our industry," said Jeff Taylor, chairman of the alliance.
While U.S. coal production has declined the past two quarters, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data, there has been a marked improvement in demand for U.S. coal abroad. The boost from export markets has offered relief from relatively tepid domestic markets.
Steve Winberg, the former coal official appointed to assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy under Trump, said optimism is growing in coal country under a president who would rather "revive" than "revile" coal. He said the department is working on several initiatives to help fulfill Trump's goals of bringing back coal jobs and production, such as federal support for smaller, modular coal plants that can more nimbly compete with other fuels.
"My message to you today is that we have reason to be optimistic," Winberg said. "I think optimism in coal country was in pretty short order a year ago. I think it's fair to say that things have changed and they are continuing to change. … President Trump and his administration truly understand the value and the necessity of coal and the coal industry."
Winberg said boosting domestic energy production to become "energy dominant globally" is a national security interest. "That's not only good for us, that's good for our friends and partners around the world, and we're starting to see that as exports are rising," he said.
Warrior Met Coal Inc. COO Jack Richardson acknowledged the industry's appreciation of a new administration that has supplemented the recent turn in international coal markets.
"I think it's safe to say the foundation has now been laid to rebuild and sustain the nation's coal industry," Richardson said.
Still, the sector is subject to the whims of market forces both domestically and globally, Taylor noted as the conference transitioned from its first panel.
"It feels good to have somewhat of a stable base, for a moment anyway," Taylor said. "It could change in the next five minutes, but at least there's not a headwind."
Eddie Joe Williams, a Southern States Energy Board representative appointed by Trump, said there has been a major change in attitudes about the future of coal in the federal government trickling down from the White House.
"We need to remember coal is an integral part of our nation's baseload electrical generation," Williams said. "When that baseload generation is replaced with intermittent resources, reliability is lost and I might add, my boss agrees with that."
Republican Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Morgan Griffith of Virginia also spoke in an opening session at the conference where both touted successful Republican initiatives since Trump took over the White House, from rolling back the Stream Protection Rule to enacting tax reform. Griffith said negative press and pressure on Trump stems from his effectiveness.
"They understand that we are in fact rebuilding the American economy and we're not afraid of using fossil fuels, including coal," Griffith said. "They don't like it and they want to put a stop to it. We're going to make sure we continue this trend. … Whether it's coal policy or tax policy, we're going to keep doing it."