Coal’s re­bound un­der Trump is pro­jected to burn out

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLFGANG

Just five months into Pres­i­dent Trump’s ten­ure, signs show that the U.S. coal sec­tor has be­gun a slight re­bound from the his­toric lows reached dur­ing the Obama era — but even the most ar­dent coal pro­po­nents say the re­vival will be short-lived.

The num­ber of Amer­i­can coal min­ers has steadily in­creased since Mr. Trump was elected in Novem­ber and hit 51,000 last month, the high­est level in over a year. In the first five months of the year, to­tal coal pro­duc­tion was up 17 per­cent com­pared with the same pe­riod last year, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral fig­ures. Coal pro­duc­tion dur­ing the fi­nal week of May was 22 per­cent higher than dur­ing the same week last year, with nearly 15 mil­lion short tons, En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion data show.

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have touted the num­bers as proof that Mr. Trump is ful­fill­ing a cam­paign prom­ise that struck an emo­tional chord with vot­ers in the key Rust Belt states that pro­pelled him to vic­tory. The White House re­peat­edly has de­clared that the “war on coal” of the Obama years has of­fi­cially ended.

But the early uptick, while en­cour­ag­ing,

doesn’t mean the coal in­dus­try will re­gain all of the jobs lost in re­cent years, and the in­creases can be at least par­tially ex­plained by nor­mal sea­sonal changes in em­ploy­ment and pro­duc­tion. En­ergy mar­ket an­a­lysts, sec­tor lead­ers and even ve­he­mently pro-coal law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill are tem­per­ing their own ex­pec­ta­tions while the ad­min­is­tra­tion boasts that it is breath­ing new life into Amer­i­can coal.

“We hope to see sus­tained job in­creases but don’t see the el­e­ments in place for long-term em­ploy­ment gains yet,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica.

En­ergy mar­ket an­a­lysts say the long-term fore­cast for coal is bleak. Although Obama-era reg­u­la­tions clearly had some ef­fect, they say, the big­gest im­pact on the coal sec­tor has been the rise of cheap, abun­dant nat­u­ral gas.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tinue to pro­mote coal min­ing, but of­fi­cials are slash­ing reg­u­la­tions on oil and gas ex­plo­ration, specif­i­cally to open more fed­eral land for drilling. Ab­sent a ma­jor shake-up in the gas mar­ket — such as a mas­sive, un­ex­pected price hike — it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the coal sec­tor re­gain­ing its past glory, es­pe­cially with many coal­fired power plants and util­i­ties mov­ing to­ward cheaper nat­u­ral gas.

“You can’t have nat­u­ral gas prices below $2 … and not have the coal in­dus­try be im­pacted,” said Dan Klein, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of global coal at PIRA En­ergy, an an­a­lyt­ics unit of S&P Global Platts.

“Hav­ing a bit of re­cov­ery is pos­si­ble, but it’s not ex­actly get­ting any­where close to the hey­day of de­mand and pro­duc­tion,” he said. “There are fac­tors stacked up against coal us­age in the coun­try, and one of them is just the age of coal-fired power plants across the coun­try.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, how­ever, are paint­ing a much more op­ti­mistic pic­ture. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt ar­gued last week that Mr. Trump’s poli­cies have quickly had a mas­sive im­pact on jobs in the coal sec­tor.

“We’ve had over 50,000 jobs since last quar­ter — coal jobs, min­ing jobs — cre­ated in this coun­try. We had al­most 7,000 min­ing and coal jobs cre­ated in the month of May alone,” he told ABC’s “This Week” on June 4. “The un­em­ploy­ment rate is 4.3 per­cent, as you know, Ge­orge.

This pres­i­dent’s dereg­u­la­tion agenda, par­tic­u­larly in the en­ergy space, is mak­ing a sub­stan­tial im­pact on the jobs across this coun­try and giv­ing peo­ple hope.”

Mr. Pruitt’s sta­tis­tics, while tech­ni­cally true, are mis­lead­ing. The 50,000 num­ber in­cludes the en­tire min­ing and log­ging sec­tor and in­cludes sup­port jobs for the coal sec­tor. The Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics sub­cat­e­gory counts a host of po­si­tions not di­rectly re­lated to coal min­ing.

Fur­ther­more, the num­ber of coal min­ers — about 51,000 as of the end of May — be­gan to rise dur­ing the fi­nal months of Pres­i­dent Obama’s ten­ure. Coal min­ing jobs bot­tomed out in Septem­ber at 49,600 and then be­gan a slow climb.

The pro­duc­tion side is per­haps more en­cour­ag­ing for coal cham­pi­ons. While pro­duc­tion typ­i­cally rises through the spring and sum­mer, the to­tal amount of mined coal so far this year is about 314 mil­lion short tons, com­pared with 274 mil­lion short tons dur­ing the same time pe­riod last year.

Pro-coal law­mak­ers said they are grate­ful for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to re­vi­tal­ize the in­dus­try.

“The new ad­min­is­tra­tion has been a breath of fresh air for coal min­ers who en­dured a with­er­ing as­sault over the last eight years. They now have some rea­son for hope, and the uptick in pro­duc­tion, jobs and in­vest­ment is re­flec­tive of that,” said Rep. David B. McKin­ley, West Vir­ginia Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Con­gres­sional Coal Cau­cus.

But he, too, put a damper on ex­pec­ta­tions.

“None of us are un­der the il­lu­sion coal will re­gain the po­si­tion it held 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “But it can con­tinue to play a sig­nif­i­cant role in pro­vid­ing re­li­able, low-cost en­ergy.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

DIG­GING IN: Pres­i­dent Trump hailed the open­ing of the Corsa Coal Corp. mine, which is ex­pected to cre­ate 70 to 100 jobs.

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