Our Editorial: Coal is dying; rule repeal won’t save it

The Detroit News

During his campaign, President Donald Trump spoke to the suffering coal communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other places, assuring them that if elected, he would end the war on coal and restore mining jobs.

Last week he sought to deliver on that promise by setting in motion the repeal of the Obama-administration’s Clean Power Plan, which set a tight timetable for closing much of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

We objected to the Clean Power Plan when it was finalized by the EPA in 2015, largely because we believed such sweeping energy policy, with the potential to impact a large segment of the American economy, should be debated and voted on by Congress, and not imposed through the agency rule-making process.

There was also legitimate concern that shuttering so many base-load power plants would lead to shortages of electricity and choke the nation’s industrial competitiveness.

While our objections have not changed, they have been overcome by events that make Trump’s promise to coal country voters all but meaningless.

Coal is dwindling as a source of power in this country, and repealing the Clean Power Plan will not change that trajectory.

Between 2008 and 2016, the nation lost 17 percent of its coal-fired generating capacity. Another 42 percent of U.S. coal plants are either in the process of closing or face shutdown.

Coal’s share of electrical generation now stands at 31 percent, down from 51 percent a decade ago.

And the reason involves more than Obama’s war on coal.

The driver is economics. As new extraction technologies have been perfected, natural gas has become more plentiful and far less expensive. Power plant operators can cut costs by converting coal plants to natural gas without losing significant capacity.

That trend is unlikely to change.

Nor are power producers likely to ease their timetable for shuttering or converting coal plants based on the rules repeal. The process of converting power generating facilities or opening new ones is cumbersome and time consuming.

The producers know that the next president can reinstate the Clean Power Plan as easily as Trump is abandoning it. Power generators need certainty as they chart their investment strategy, and given the cost advantages of natural gas, they probably won’t alter course without action by Congress to make permanent the repeal.

Rather than sell coal miners and their communities on false promises, Trump should offer them assistance to move beyond coal and into new industries.

That won’t be as easy as Hillary Clinton tried to make it sound during her rival campaign when she pledged to bring green energy jobs to coal country.

Coal is mined in places that are generally remote, and often mountainous. Bringing jobs into those areas that pay at the levels of the coal industry will be difficult, if not impossible.

A large number of people may have to resettle to replace their incomes and lifestyles. That’s a tough message to deliver.

But at least it’s an honest one. Coal will never be king again for America’s energy production. The financial numbers just don’t add up. And that, as much as EPA rule-making, is what sealed the fate of coal country.