Why Trump Probably Can't Bring Back Coal (Or Kill Renewables, Either)
Donald Trump's shocking victory in the 2016 presidential election will have reverberations on many aspects of American life. But many say one of the most serious is what it will mean for energy and environmental issues.
Most notably, Trump’s election likely foreshadows a shift away from President Barack Obama’s move toward renewable energy. First and foremost, Trump could decide to reverse course on two of President Obama’s biggest climate initiatives: the Paris Climate Agreement, which commits the U.S. to reducing its carbon emissions; and the Clean Power Plan, a regulation on the power industry that would help the U.S. accomplish these greenhouse gas reductions. In addition, Trump could do away with vehicle fuel efficiency standards the Obama administration established.
“You really have a whole host of things the [Obama] administration put together as part of a comprehensive executive climate plan that the Trump administration can just begin to knock down one by one,” says Stephen Lacey, editor-in-chief at Greentech Media.
Varun Sivaram, the Acting Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, says he hopes President-elect Trump will keep many of Obama’s policies on climate. But judging by Trump’s past comments, that seems unlikely. He’s called climate change a hoax. And at a gas industry conference in Pittsburgh in September, he told the crowd he would roll back many of the Obama administration’s efforts to slow down global warming.
“Big picture, I would imagine the U.S. is slower to phase out coal than a president who would have retained the Clean Power Plan,” Sivaram says.
Still, Sivaram doubts coal will make the comeback many in that industry are hoping for because of competition from cheaper natural gas.
“I think coal power is not coming back in this country regardless of what regulatory changes a President Trump is going to make. Economically, it is no longer as competitive as it used to be.”
The Trump win was at least perceived as a boon to the struggling coal industry. Stocks for the country’s biggest producer, Peabody Energy, went up Wednesday—as did bonds for Murray Energy. Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, called the Trump win “a great day for America” and “a great day for coal miners and their families.” In a statement, Murray says Trump “will finally implement a National Energy Policy whereby all energy sources will compete on a level playing field.”
Bob Wilson, a coal miner in Greene County, Pennsylvania, also says he thinks Trump would be good for his industry.
“He’s better for coal, he’s better for the working class,” Wilson says. “With the EPA getting off our backs, you’ll be able to produce coal for a cheaper amount.”
Wilson says he supported Trump because he agreed with the candidate on issues like abortion rights and immigration, but the economy was a big factor.
“I don’t support all of his ideas, but I do trust more of his values,” Wilson says. “And I do believe him when he says he’s going to bring coal miners back to work, he’s going to improve our economy, he’s going to get rid of these stupid trade deals. We can’t compete [with China on labor costs], so therefore we close down our plants and we’re forgetting how to make things.”
Blair Zimmerman, a Greene County commissioner and former coal miner, says he voted for Clinton. But he thinks others in his county—where 70 percent voted for Trump—based their votes more on the two candidates’ position on coal.
“Everybody I talked to that were die-hard Trump [supporters], that’s all they were thinking about was coal—and not losing their job.”
Zimmerman doesn’t think Trump can bring back the coal industry to what it was before. Last year, U.S. coal production hit a 30-year low. He would like to see his region look past coal as an engine of economic growth.
“I’m hoping during this process that [we] say, ‘OK, [coal] is not always going to be in Greene County or West Virginia or Kentucky,’ and we need to help them make changes over time to bring other manufacturing and industry into their region.”
As for the renewable industry, Greentech Media’s Stephen Lacey says the gains made by the solar and wind industry over the past decade have set in motion a process of greening the energy grid that may be “unstoppable.” Trump could slow this down, but the renewable energy industry is likely to continue its momentum.
“There are market forces at play that are beyond the Trump administration and that probably won’t change,” Lacey says. “Without the support of the White House, we may see a slow down in growth. But growth will continue for sure.”
Steve Peplin, the CEO and founder of Talan Products, which makes racks and mounts for solar panels in Cleveland, says the election could be bad for his bottom line.
“I’d be lying if I said I was really optimistic,” Peplin says. “Hillary had in her platform to grow the size of the solar industry 700 percent—literally to make it seven times bigger—and it’s very big right now.”
If Trump decides he wants to take away the solar investment tax credit that Congress recently extended for five years, that would hurt the solar industry. But Peplin says solar has enough momentum that it could keep growing under a Trump presidency.
“The overriding thing that’s driving solar now is the cost just keeps on going down,” Peplin says. “It’s really hard now to not see the benefits. I think the reason he was maybe against it is he just wasn’t aware of the details and the economics of the industry. There’s almost a quarter million people employed in solar now. I’m not going to say I can predict the future, [but] maybe this will all work out.”
Julie Grant contributed to this story.