President Donald Trump may be the coal industry’s only hope after years of being hit with burdensome regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation on power plants to tackle global warming, called the Clean Power Plan (CPP), could cost the U.S. economy a staggering $41 billion a year. Most of these costs will be born by the coal industry.
“At least we’ve got a shot at it under Trump,” Jeff Keffer, CEO of the coal company Longview Power, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “If Clinton had won, the requirements of the Clean Power Plan and the inability to replace old plants would have eventually just killed coal entirely in the 2020s. There’d be a few plants like ours which would have continued, but coal would have disappeared as an industry in the U.S.”
Located near Morgantown, West Virginia the Longview Power Plant is arguably the most efficient coal plant in the U.S., producing 700 net megawatts of electric power. It is one of the most fuel efficient coal plants in the country, and emits less CO2 than older coal plants. Longview cost about $2.2 billion, making it the largest private investment in West Virginia’s history.
“The coal industry in general has just been brutalized by the current fading administration,” Keffer said. “There has been no effort to replace the aging coal fleet in this country. I have the concern that unless we build more Longviews — everybody else is building coal plants just like ours. Unless we do that, all these old coal plants will be phased out in the next 20 years.”
Trump promised to eliminate the CPP, drawing criticism from environmentalists and Democrats, but earning praise from coal miners and companies who want to stay in business. Coal power provides base-load electricity that allows even green energy sources, like wind and solar, to operate. The electric grid requires a constant stream of power when green energy isn’t available.
“A coal plant like ours can change the amount of power its producing while continuing to make electricity when the sun’s not shining and the winds not blowing,” Keffer continued. “Nobody else is out there trying to build new American coal plants due to regulations. I’m hoping we [the coal industry] can hold on to about 30 percent of the national power market going forward.”
Coal power provided about 33 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. in the year 2015, according to data from Energy Information Administration (EIA). Natural gas provided another 33 percent, while nuclear generated 20 percent. The same year, wind and solar power only accounted for 4.7 and 0.6 percent of all electricity generated in America.
Keffer is concerned that coal power will continue declining as older plants go offline due to their age. Longview Power plant is one of the few new coal power plants in the U.S.
“We’re one of the only modern coal plants in the eastern U.S.,” Keffer said. “There was a brief period in the early 2000s where you could get one of our highly efficient coal plants permitted. We only started commercial operations in 2011. We filed for bankruptcy back in 2013 due to cheap natural gas and low power prices … we have the lowest heat rate in the country meaning we’re the most efficient and we’ve got the fewest harmful emissions.”
Longview has a heat rate of 8,700 Btu/per kilowatt-hour, surpassing that other comparable coal-fired power plants in the country.
Clean coal power plants have the potential to bring back the declining coal industry. Clean coal technology is of particular interest to President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly spoken about it. Keffer however is skeptical.
“One of the big problems with carbon capture and sequestration is that it greatly reduces the output of a plant, 30 to 40 percent at a minimum with present technology,” Keffer told TheDCNF. “That’s a real problem in terms of the cost of producing electricity.”
The first large-scale U.S. “clean coal” power plant became operational earlier this month. This clean coal plant, dubbed Petra Nova, captures the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the coal it burns and pumps it from near Houston to an oil field where it will is used for enhanced oil recovery. Petra Nova is capable of preventing 90 percent of the CO2 emissions usually generated by burning coal for power.
America has 83,000 fewer coal jobs and 400 fewer coal mines than it did when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, demonstrating the president is following through on his pledge to “bankrupt” the coal industry.
“If we can save and replace out coal fleet in the U.S., then I think we’ll be able to bring some of those jobs back, and more importantly we’ll be able to sustain some of the jobs we have now over time,” Keffer noted. “We’re going to have to do something to ensure that the hiatus that would come from Trump’s lifting the requirements of the Clean Power Plan doesn’t make coal operationally obsolete.”
A 2015 study found the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012 during Obama’s first term. During Obama’s second term, industry employment in coal mining fell by another 33,300 jobs, 10,900 of which occurred in the last year alone, according to federal data. As a result, many ex-coal miners are unemployed and Appalachian “coal country” faces very real economic devastation as a result.
Currently, coal mining employs 69,460 Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Much of the blame for job loss is targeted at federal regulations aimed at preventing global warming, which caused coal power plants to go bankrupt, and yet the energy market does seem to have moved away from coal and towards natural gas, though the extent of this transition is unclear.
Major companies such as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, and Arch Coal were forced to declare bankruptcy in the last year. Other coal companies like Alliance Coal announced mass layoffs. Peabody is set to emerge from bankruptcy sometime this year as part of the industry’s general resurgence.
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