Obsolete coal

Smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal-burning power plant in Colstrip, Montana, in 2013. President Donald Trump’s moves to support coal mining are unlikely to turn around the industry’s prospects, experts say.

Associated Press file photo

The Trump administration is unflinching in its misbegotten campaign to protect the coal industry from what has become an obvious and inevitable decline. Eight months in, the administration has already killed, or is in the process of killing, rules that would prevent the dumping of coal mining wastes in streams, impose a temporary moratorium on new mine leases in the West, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants — one of President Barack Obama’s most important efforts to resist climate change. All of this to prop up an industry whose workers would be best served not by false promises of new mining jobs, but by aggressive programs to retrain them for a changing economy.

The latest ritualistic bow from Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who has presented himself as an industry savior, was to order last week a two-year postponement of the Obama administration’s tighter controls on lead, mercury, arsenic and other coal plant wastes that threaten human health. Delaying the rule’s effective date to November 2020, Mr. Pruitt said, merely “resets the clock.”

What it does, rather, is to try to twist the clock back to the day when coal was essentially a monopoly fuel, a day that practical-minded utility executives know is long gone. In fact, these executives are busily shutting down coal-fired plants in favor of more affordable energy sources like natural gas and wind and solar power.

“We’re not going to build any more coal plants; that’s not going to happen,” Chris Beam, head of Appalachian Power, West Virginia’s largest utility, bluntly told the state last April, despite President Trump’s phantasmagorical campaign promise to resurrect lost jobs for coal miners. No less candid, Lynn Good, the head of Duke Energy, America’s largest utility, defended the closing of 12 coal plants across five years, with more to come, in order to cut the company’s coal-fired energy output by a third: “Our strategy will continue to be to drive carbon out of our business.”

In February, one of the nation’s biggest coal-fired plants, the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, set plans to shut down by the end of 2019 — more than two decades earlier than expected — in order to turn to alternatives, cut consumer prices and shed the notoriety of being the third-worst carbon polluter in the nation, according to the ratings of the (pre-Trump) E.P.A.

While environmental rules have played some role in the closing of coal-fired plants, the main driver is cheaper and abundant natural gas. Coal’s use in power generation has been declining since 2007, and by 2016 coal-fired plants produced only 30 percent of the nation’s total generation, compared with 50 percent in 2003.

The trend will continue; in 2017 and 2018, at least 46 coal-fired units will close at 25 electricity plants in 16 states, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. In its outlook for 2017, the institute skewered Mr. Trump’s campaign vows, saying, “Promises to create more coal jobs will not be kept — indeed the industry will continue to cut payrolls.”

About 60,000 coal industry jobs have been lost since 2011, and three of the four major mining companies have gone bankrupt, according to a new study by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Even so, Mr. Trump remains obstinate in his “war on coal” statements and steadfast to his bloated campaign promises to laid-off miners, despite expert opinion, expressed in the study, that lifting vital environmental controls “will not materially improve” the coal industry’s prospects.

It is shocking that an administration led and staffed by supposedly shrewd business executives deliberately overlooks the blossoming of profitable and cleaner energy products simply because of Mr. Trump’s hollow showmanship before his campaign base.

Until now, the E.P.A. and the environmental safeguards Congress has ordered it to enforce have been crucial to the development of new technologies. To have Mr. Pruitt sully that history with false promises to a fading industry is irresponsible.

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