The president’s false promise betrays his biggest supporters
To justify his massive rollbacks to environmental progress last week, President Trump sold his “Energy Independence” executive order as a boost for the fossil fuel industry, hyping one dangerous, dirty, long-romanticized energy source in particular: coal. While signing the order, the president, surrounded by coal miners, stated, “I made them this promise. We will put our miners back to work.”
It’s a promise he made on the campaign trail, too—though even coal industry champions such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray have warned that any such a promise would be empty.
Trump’s policies can’t turn around an economic tide that’s washing away jobs in coal. As The Washington Post reported on Friday, the sagging radio and travel agency industries are booming in comparison.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Coal isn't just bad for public health and the environment—it's bad for the bottom line.[/quote]
A new report by by researchers at CoalSwarm, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace provides the global context as to the reasons Trump can’t keep his word. The report, called “Boom and Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline,” reveals a global decline in coal consumption that turned a corner in 2016, driven by a rapid shift away from the dirtiest and most polluting of fossil fuels in China and India.
More than 100 new coal plants that had already been under construction in China and India have been stalled, the plants left unfinished. This amounts to a roughly 62 percent decline in new coal plants brought online, and the report estimates that work will be frozen on even more projects in 2017.
Satellite photos from the “Boom and Bust 2017” report cover show frozen construction over the course of four years at the Cuttack KVK Nilachal power station in Odisha state, India.
The construction freezes are due mostly to a clampdown on coal-fired electric generation by new Chinese central authorities and from Indian financiers taking their money out of new coal plants.
What does the freeze in China and India have to do with American coal mines? Long story short: Coal is a global market, and as more and more U.S. power plants convert to cheaper natural gas and renewables, Asian demand for coal has been propping up the market. American coal companies have been steadily shifting their focus to Asian exports for the better part of a decade.
Now, all that effort appears to have been in vain. “The staggering uptick in clean energy and reduction in the new coal plant pipeline is even more proof that coal isn't just bad for public health and the environment—it's bad for the bottom line,” said Nicole Ghio of the Sierra Club’s International Climate and Energy Campaign in a statement announcing the report’s launch. “Markets are demanding clean energy, and no amount of rhetoric from Donald Trump will be able to stop the fall of coal in the U.S. and across the globe.”
A slowdown of new plant construction is particularly crucial in the climate fight, because whenever one of these plants is built and brought online, it typically is used for at least a 30-year lifespan, locking the world into three decades worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
On the other end of the life cycle, there have been a record-breaking number of coal plant retirements over the past two years. More than 64 gigawatts of coal-fired power has come offline—the equivalent of roughly 120 large power plants—mostly in the European Union and in the United States.
Credit: “Boom and Bust 2017” report
Barely a month goes by without news on yet another U.S. coal plant closing; in fact, four closures have been announced since Trump’s victory in November, and utilities plan on closing at least 40 more plants over the next four years.
Squeezed out by coal plant closures in the West and a freeze on new demand in the East, there doesn’t seem to be much of a role for American coal resources in the global energy mix. But don’t hold your breath for Trump to tell the miners that nobody wants their coal.