Monday night at his rally in Louisville, President Donald Trump repeated a campaign promise, telling the crowd he would revive Kentucky’s beleaguered coal industry.
“As we speak, we are preparing new executive actions to save our coal industry and to save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work,” he said. “The miners are coming back.”
But Trump didn’t offer any details about what those executive actions could be. He has already used the Congressional Review Act to roll back the Stream Protection Rule — which tightened environmental restrictions on surface mining, and had been in effect for less than a month — and has hinted in the past that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan carbon dioxide regulations will be on the chopping block as well.
In the first quarter of 2009, just as President Obama took office, Kentucky’s coal industry hit a recent high point, employing 19,422 workers. When Obama left office at the end of last year, there were only 6,371 people employed in the industry.
But this trend of declining coal employment has been happening for decades — long before Obama made climate change a priority and enacted new regulations on the mining and burning of coal. A bigger threat to coal miners — but not to the coal companies — is automation. More coal can now be extracted with fewer workers, representing greater productivity and cost savings for the industry.
Kentucky Coal Association President J. Tyler White was on the public radio show 1A Monday morning (the first hour of the show was all about Kentucky) to discuss the state’s coal industry. When pushed by host Joshua Johnson to name something concrete that would help bring back jobs, White was vague.
White told Johnson coal wouldn’t be totally phased out anytime soon — it still provides more than 80 percent of the electricity in Kentucky, and about a third of the electricity nationwide. But he said he wanted to see more research into innovative coal technologies.
“There are multiple technologies being explored with clean coal technology, and I know some of the viewers here think that’s an oxymoron, but it’s not,” he said. “We do know in order for any innovation to take place that we cannot be handicapped in doing it.”
According to a report prepared last year by the Congressional Research Service for members of Congress, research in finding cleaner ways to burn coal doesn’t seem to have been handicapped under Obama’s administration. In fact, the federal government invested heavily in advanced coal technology under Obama. Since 2008, Congress appropriated more than $7 billion for carbon capture and sequestration research at the Department of Energy.
Many of these projects — like FutureGen in Illinois — haven’t panned out. Another — the Kemper plant in Mississippi — is still underway, but is more than $4 billion over budget. Innovative technology like carbon capture and sequestration has been proven to work, technically. But without limits on carbon dioxide or a carbon tax, they still aren’t economically viable.
Under Trump’s proposed budget, the funding for the Department of Energy is cut, and more existing funds will be invested in nuclear energy research. Money for the program that does coal technology research will be focused “on limited, early-stage applied energy research and development activities where the Federal role is stronger.”
It’s too early to know how that would affect Tyler White’s vision of industry innovation, but barring any further specifics, it’s hard to see a path for a large-scale coal industry resurgence as a result of policies and priorities to which Trump has alluded.