The fallacy of Trump’s vow to restore the coal economy

One of the generating units at the power plant at Kemmerer, Wyo., is being shut down this year to reduce emissions that are causing regional haze.  2009 photo/Allen Best

Trump vows to bring back coal, but coal has lost favor for many reasons

by Allen Best

CRAIG, Colo. – With coal miners at his side, President Donald Trump last week signed an executive order that seeks to undo the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

In coal towns, there was rejoicing. The plan requires a gradual switching of power sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent by 2030. Unless carbon capture and storage technology advances rapidly, this puts coal at a great disadvantage.

Coal plants were already closing in droves. They’ve been losing out to cheaper natural gas, which has fewer greenhouse gas emissions and can be dispatched in a matter of minutes, unlike coal plants, which take about a day to crank up. This makes natural gas a better fit with renewables, whose prices have tumbled dramatically in the last five years.

But coal plants in the Rocky Mountains have also been closing because of their dirty environmental footprint, not even considering greenhouse gas emissions. The sulfur dioxide and other emissions contribute heavily to regional haze, also called smog.

For example, PacifiCorp announced it would close one of its generating units at its power plant at Kemmerer, Wyo., located south of Jackson Hole. The plant provides power for Park City. The reason: the electricity wasn’t needed, because of improved energy efficiency, and to upgrade the plants to reduce pollutants was too expensive.

In northwest Colorado, Tri-State Generation and Transmission and other electrical providers have agreed to shut down a 427-megawatt power plant at Craig by 2025. This is 42 miles west of Steamboat Springs. Again, the problem is regional haze and other environmental pollutants.

The Four Corners power plant, in northwestern New Mexico. Photo/Allen Best

In New Mexico, it’s the same story. There, two units of the San Juan Generating Station are to be shut down by the end of this year, notes the Durango (Colo.) Herald.

The Herald says Public Service Co. of New Mexico is deciding whether the remaining units at the San Juan complex will operate beyond 2022.

The New York Times  today makes the same point in this story by Coral Davenport: “Coal is on the Way Out at Electric Utilities, No Matter What Trump  Says.”

At the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association conference, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter pointed to action at state and local levels, along with that of private companies, all aiming to clean up energy sources. Among those pushing is a national coalition of state-based conservative clean energy and energy efficiency organizations. Ritter pointed out that some of the states represented in the  Conservative Energy Network have Republican governors.

“What this makes me believe is that no matter what happens at the federal level for the time being, there are opportunities,” said Ritter.

Wyoming didn’t join that coalition, even if Gov. Matt Mead continues to prod his state into making changes.

Coal trains await loading in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

Jonathan Schechter, writing in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, while pondering his own mortality, wants Wyoming to similarly quit denying that the day for the end of coal is drawing nigh. Wyoming has been living high as the go-to source for low-sulfur coal since the 1980s. You can still see mile-long coal trains grinding their way through Denver’s booming LoDo section on their way to plants as distant as Texas, Mississippi and even, for a time, Florida.

Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants closed between 2006 and 2016, and most remaining plants are on the verge of functional obsolescence. In 20 years, Schechter observes, nearly 90 percent of the plants will be 40 years old or older. As these plants close down – likely to be replaced by natural gas and renewables – “so too will the market for Wyoming’s coal, and with it the economic benefits coal has bestowed upon our state.”

Wyoming has no income tax. That simple fact, as much as the amazing sight of the Teton Range, may explain why Jackson Hole rivals Aspen for billionaires per capita. “When the day comes that income is taxed, Jackson Hole will start to become home to a much different demographic,” Schechter concludes.

As for Trump’s vow to bring back coal, the logical question in the face of all this evidence is, will the president also promise to bring back cheap gas, like the 18.9 cents per gallon of his youth?

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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7 Responses to The fallacy of Trump’s vow to restore the coal economy

  1. Tom Fitch says:

    Most of the dirtiest and worst polluting coal plants are in the east and are privately owned. Their owners have resisted most common sense improvements and upgrades over the years to increase their efficiency and clean up their emissions. Though coal’s diminished role as a fuel source is perhaps inevitable, coal producers need look no further than these bad actors who own these polluting plants for the accelerated demise of demand for their product and the rapid ascent of natural gas. That this is lost on Lying Donald Trump and coal producers is a mystery.

    • Allen Best says:

      It will be interesting to see what becomes of Rawhide, the power plant in your neighborhood, Tom. Grand ambitions by the City of Fort Collins to dramatically ease into renewables. Not at all clear how they’re going to get there. Fort Collins is, I believe, just one of six municipalities with ownership stake in Rawhide.

  2. paul says:

    L.ron Schechter, the elephant crap sweeper at the end of the parade & guiding news. Talk about the not knowing whether we are ‘treed or tracken’ school of economics. The world is burning more coal. sorry. To ignore, is still the root of ignorance, and this type of media ignorance is what got Trump elected. Good job.

    • Allen Best says:

      Better way to describe global consumption of coal is plateauing. Declines in developed countries and increases in developing countries. The big question mark now is India. Robust growth for now, but the same combination of factors that caused the bankruptcy of the coal companies here —plunging prices of renewables combined with relatively cheap natural gas—may significantly slow the growth or stop it altogether in the giant subcontinent. Wildflower, I finally got rid of my Royal typewriter. The coal sector for too long thought we’d be using typewriters forever.

  3. paul says:

    your assumptions on nat gas on remaining cheap in the U.S. , much less the rest of the world aren’t very well thought out. Its called supply and demand. On the first day of the Marrakech climate party, China announced that it would be raising its coal/ energy output by 20% in the near future. Better to be burning Wy. low sulfur? duh. Renewables and Chinese honesty are fundamentally hype. And ten years ago Schechter predicted the end of snow in five years. How’s that playing out? Now he’s hustling the end of trees. normative hype at its finest. Not sure what your typewriter has to do with anything, except the fact that you have the ability to be shallow, faster. Remember Wy. coal workers produce actually value, not journalistic hype.

    • Allen Best says:

      Hasn’t coal been getting a little pricey? Yes, natural gas almost surely will rise in price, too. And yes, renewables alone can’t pull the wagon, at least as things are now constituted. But the old model of coal, like my Royal typewriter, has diminished value in this big picture, as witnessed by is erosion of market share in the United States. Ten to 15 years ago, the coal sector was sitting back on its haunches, a bit arrogant altogether. Not a good posture whether you’re old or young, at the top of the league or at the bottom. You bring up rising world demand for coal. That is, I believe, a correct statement. But here’s something you should also observe, and it is about telephony. WE grew up with landlines. I still have one. Cell phones are inferior for my hearing-impaired ears. But in much of the developing world, they’re leap-frogging past landlines and going directly to cellular technology. My point is that why, if solar power is cheap, will they not try to embrace that — as the Chinese already are. Of course they are.They want electrical services, not necessarily coal or solar. But coal, despite its advantages, has humongous downsides. Again, like my old Royal typewriter.

  4. paul says:

    Like the humongous drought that just ended.

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