What would Trump 2.0 mean for coal?

By Hannah Northey, Brian Dabbs | 06/26/2024 06:44 AM EDT

The next president could influence how long the fuel remains in the power mix.

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Saturday, June 22, 2024, at Temple University in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally last week in Philadelphia. Chris Szagola/AP

Gone are the vows to end “the war on beautiful, clean coal.”

As former President Donald Trump makes his second run for the White House, the beleaguered coal industry that built the U.S. into an economic giant over the past century is less prominent on the campaign trail, overshadowed by rhetoric on electric vehicles and wind power.

But that’s not stopping much of the coal industry from lining up behind Trump, whose campaign insists the former president is poised to revive the sagging industry.


“No one has done more damage to the American coal industry than Joe Biden,” Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said in an email. “President Trump ushered in unprecedented levels of energy independence for America. And he will do so again.”

While the winner of the November election may not determine the ultimate fate of coal — which is in steep decline in the U.S. — the next president could influence how long it sticks around as a source of power in a climate-constrained world.

Along with playing a potential role with what happens to EPA rules on power plants, the next occupant of the White House could affect the cleanup of former mines, the pace of federal reviews for coal mine expansions, and the outcome of a proposed moratorium on coal leasing on public lands in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.

The next president could also affect what happens to tens of thousands of former coal miners who may continue to see jobs wiped away as the nation moves more to renewables and gas. That will hinge partly on whether the next administration provides tax incentives, grants and loans to companies that build clean energy projects in former coal regions.

“Absolutely elections matter, and it’s pretty clear the Biden administration is not a friend of coal,” said Steven Winberg, a former Energy Department official during the Trump administration who now leads an industry group focused on carbon capture and utilization.

The Biden campaign did not respond when asked for comment.

Coal’s decline is praised by environmentalists, who note that plants running on the fuel produce roughly double the carbon dioxide emissions as ones with natural gas and are responsible for pollution and public health problems such as black lung disease.

But fossil fuel advocates such as Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the lobby group America’s Power, point to rising electricity demand forecasts to argue coal, which can provide power 24 hours a day unlike intermittent sources like wind and solar, deserves to stick around in the U.S. electricity mix.

A new Trump presidency is likely to “restore a responsible, all-of-the-above approach to energy policy that fosters domestic innovation and strengthens our economic competitiveness,” she said. Bloodworth said America’s Power does not endorse presidential candidates.

Others say a new Trump administration could make a difference for coal on the margins, by backing rules and regulations that help keep existing plants online longer.

“The conversation is more likely to be about how long existing coal facilities can continue to operate and what kind of investments would companies put into those facilities to allow them to continue to operate,” said Charles McConnell, a former official with DOE and the National Coal Council who now directs the Center for Carbon Management in Energy at the University of Houston, in an interview.

“If you look across the board of coal producers in this country, you have a few that are going to do I think OK for the next 5-10 years, and you’ll see some race to the bottom investments,” he said.

A wild card for the fuel’s future is EPA’s power plant rules, which would require coal-fired plants to retrofit and use carbon capture technology to control 90 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2032 or shut down by 2039. The same time frame would also apply to new natural gas-fired power plants that run at least 40 percent of the time.

The regulations have left the coal sector fuming. States, rural electric co-ops, and investor-owned electric utilities are currently challenging the EPA rule in court. But bipartisan support exists for carbon-capturing technology — a potential lifeline for coal.

Trump’s wish list

Trump’s fiery energy rhetoric on the campaign trail about EVs, natural gas and wind contrast with 2016 and the first two years of his administration, when he pledged to “put miners back to work” and boost “beautiful clean coal.”

“We have ended the war on American Energy — and we have ended the war on clean coal,” Trump declare in his 2018 State of the Union Address. “We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.”

When Trump has spoken about mining in recent months while crisscrossing the country — such as when he vowed to bring Minnesota’s Iron Range “roaring back to life” — it’s been focused more on industries such as taconite that’s used to make steel, rather than coal.

“Politically, it just doesn’t make sense for him to focus his campaign on broken promises,” said Erin Bates, a spokesperson for United Mine Workers of America, which has yet to endorse a candidate. “During his term, not a single coal miner returned back to work. Not one coal-fired power plant was saved because of federal incentives.”

Yet Trump isn’t ignoring coal, and his campaign insists the former president is focused on reviving it.

The former president’s campaign website touts Trump’s plans to provide relief to Biden’s “suffocating” tax hikes on American coal, oil and gas producers. It also highlights Trump’s past work to reverse an Obama-era moratorium on federal coal leasing, as well as a host of other regulations — including those affecting emissions and coal ash.

“China is building a coal plant every week. Every single week they’re putting up a new coal plant. And we’re playing games with the wind,” the site states.

Coal mining.
Coal mining in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. | Ryan Dorgan/Casper Star-Tribune via AP

Trump also has coal leaders in his corner, including Joe Craft, who is fundraising for the Republican nominee while serving as president and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, one of the largest coal producers in the eastern U.S.

Allied Resource Partners did not respond to requests for comment. Craft, who supported a range of candidates in the Republican presidential primary, reportedly held a fundraiser for Trump as late as last month.

Major coal groups say they plan to be more outspoken as the presidential race moves into its final months.

“We are hoping President Trump has a second term and the current president vacates the White House on Jan. 1,” said Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, whose members include companies such as Arch Resources and CONSOL, in an interview.

“We do intend on playing a bigger role with respect to those issues as we move into the fall,” Hamilton added.

‘The pain hasn’t let up’

Coal production and consumption for power continue to drop nationwide.

The Energy Information Administration forecasts that coal, which accounted for 17 percent of U.S. power generation in 2023, will drop to 15 percent in 2025.

On the supply side, coal production is expected to fall from almost 510 million short tons in 2024 to 500 million short tons in 2025. That’s compared to more than 750 million short tons in 2017, when Trump took office. As it stands, the U.S. electricity grid now holds more electrons produced by renewables than coal — a major departure from the past.

Jobs, in turn, are taking a hit. Today, there are about 43,000 coal miners in the U.S., according to federal data, compared to around 52,000 in 2016.

According to a post on UMWA’s “Preserving Coal Country” campaign website, coal jobs, mining and consumption have continued to crater.

“The pain hasn’t let up,” authors of the post wrote.

McConnell and others say climate change and EPA regulations — along with near ubiquity now of cheap natural gas — spell trouble for coal long term, even as consumption of the fuel increases globally.

Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee and former member and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said the politics of coal are regional in the U.S., and that won’t change with the occupant of the White House.

“In certain regions of the country where coal is a more significant part of the generation mix, like in Missouri or Kentucky or in Wyoming or Montana, there’s going to be pressure to keep some of those plants open, regardless of what happens in the election,” he said. “In Kentucky, where I’m from, they’re going to still be burning coal for a long time.”

Even so, McConnell doubts another coal plant will be built in the U.S.

“The energy transition, or if you will, transformation is underway, and that momentum isn’t going to get changed by a different White House for four years,” he said. “It might feel good for a moment for those in the coal industry. But it’s not really a sustainable long term situation.”

Coal’s critics agree.

“I don’t think the U.S. will produce more coal under Trump versus Biden. We saw in Trump’s prior term as president that he made these big promises to bring back coal, especially in West Virginia, and none of that came to pass,” said Mary Ann Hitt, the former director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign who now directs U.S. Initiatives at Climate Imperative.

Searching for lifelines

Biden has sharpened his pitch to coal country in recent months in the form of jobs and programs tied to the Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law.

In battleground states like Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona, the Biden administration has poured tens of millions of dollars into supporting renewable energy production at mine sites and retraining workers in areas gutted by a national shift away from coal.

“The president has delivered time and time again, not through rhetoric, but through reality game changers on the ground,” White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters in March after the administration unveiled $475 million to fund solar, geothermal, microgrids and pumped-storage hydropower projects at mine sites.

But supporters of miners say the mining sector has yet to see high-paying, steady manufacturing jobs produced by the Biden funding. And Trump, they say, isn’t going to succeed in resuscitating coal, meaning the focus must remain on helping workers as industry jobs disappear.

Coal mine
Coal miners in Pennsylvania in 2017. | Justin Merriman/Getty Images

“Neither candidate is helping coal miners,” said Bates with the United Mine Workers of America. “A lot of members, and a lot of coal miners right now, are scared about what the future holds. You have one candidate that didn’t [uphold] his promises in 2016, but you have another administration that is pushing an EPA rule that is going to rapidly close down coal-fired power plants.”

It’s unclear how much carbon capture could help coal and its related jobs, too. There currently is one U.S. coal plant that uses carbon capture at scale. Critics of the technology say it’s too expensive and that there are cheaper options for power.

Bates and others are calling for better environmental stewardship and jobs programs in coal-producing regions.

“I think one of the biggest things that is at stake is: Will that transition happen in a way that protects public health and supports coal communities, which is something the Biden administration has prioritized, or will those supports be taken away, which I think is what would happen under a Trump administration,” said Hitt, who pointed to funding and tax incentives for coal regions in the IRA and bipartisan infrastructure law.

Other environmental groups say the next administration could play an important role in determining what happens to coal companies that currently are flouting cleanup responsibilities.

“The big question mark for us is what either administration will do about the issue of mine reclamation,” said Chelsea Barnes, director of government affairs and strategy at the environmental group Appalachian Voices, which does not endorse presidential candidates. “A lot of companies are using bankruptcy and other means to cut corners and not reclaim their mine sites. Neither administration has done anything about that.”

“It’s a huge problem in Appalachia,” she said.

Another factor for both Trump and Biden is that some key coal supporters on Capitol Hill, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (I-W.Va.), are leaving Washington this year. Even so, other lawmakers from coal-reliant western states are still going to bat for the industry and hoping Trump will deliver a lifeline.

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, for one, is pushing legislation to accelerate federal reviews of coal mine expansions in his state while accusing agencies of slow-walking the process.

Others are looking to block Biden’s proposed freeze on future coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, even though that move will likely have a limited effect on the industry, given the federal government has not executed a new coal lease in the region since 2012.

“It’s a terrible policy,” Wyoming GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis said at the POLITICO Energy Summit this month about Biden’s position. “Until we have sources of base load to replace coal, we still need coal in this country.”