President Donald Trump says he’s keeping a campaign promise to bring back mining jobs. While people in the industry are hopeful the president’s executive order overturning many Obama-era regulations will help, it might not make a huge difference.
Miners joined Trump on stage Tuesday as he signed his executive order.
“The action I’m taking today will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom, and allow our companies and our workers to thrive, compete and succeed on a level playing field for the first time in a long time, fellas,” Trump said.
The executive order lifts a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. It repeals a number of measures, including a requirement to consider the “social cost” of carbon emissions in all regulatory actions and crack down on methane emissions at oil and gas wells.
The rule also eliminates an Obama-era rule restricting fracking on public lands and a separate rule that requires energy companies to provide data on methane emissions at oil and gas operations.
In small towns that dot southwestern Indiana, it’s welcome news.
“It will certainly put us on a path to be able to move forward where the coal industry will no longer be intentionally disadvantaged compared to other energy sources,” says Stephanie McFarland, the state representative for Hoosiers Count on Coal.
Indiana Uses A Lot Of Coal, But Will That Last?
Coal is plentiful in Indiana and the state uses a lot of it. Hoosiers consume more coal than any other state except for Texas.
Most of it’s used to produce electricity. In 2014 coal produced 84 percent of Indiana’s net generation. But in the last few years those plants started shutting down or converting to natural gas.
“Maybe it’s a stop gap, ‘Trump digs coal,’ but in the long run if you look 20 years down the road, we’re not going to be digging a lot of coal,” says Timothy Slaper, the director of economic analysis for the Indiana Business Research Center.
Indianapolis Power and Light estimated it spent $70 million to convert its Harding Street plant to natural gas. The move was in part to keep up with environmental regulations, but it was primarily driven by the falling price of natural gas.
Slaper says economics, not regulations, is the real War on Coal.
“With the Clean Power Plan that is kind of a heavy handed way to say you need to make the change immediately,” he says. “The market would do that anyway, and then well, it’s also very expensive to do it immediately. So the arguments there are why not let the markets do their thing, it’s headed in that direction anyway, as opposed to a heavy-handed approach that says you’ve got to make it happen sooner.”
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Indiana produced nearly 13 percent less coal from 2014-2015 and shed 500 jobs during that one-year time period.
“Why not let the markets do their thing? It’s headed in that direction anyway. As opposed to a heavy-handed approach that says you’ve got to make it happen sooner.”
“Those coal jobs and all of the others they create by providing business to others helps to support tax revenue for roads, schools, programs, etc,” McFarland says.
While most of coal’s competition is coming from natural gas, new technology is also bringing down the price of solar panels and wind power, making them more competitive.
Indiana’s Coal Council acknowledges it would be cost-prohibitive to bring old coal plants back online, but in a statement responding to Trump’s executive action, the council’s president Bruce Stevens wrote:
“There is a better way forward, and today’s action helps to re-energize a focus on innovation over costly and unnecessary regulations. Once there’s a market driven demand for something like clean coal they will figure out how to make it that way. So I don’t think coal is going to be out of the picture entirely, but I wouldn’t place bets on a lot of coal production across the country.”
Another complicating factor that will limit the effect of Trump’s action is that the Clean Power Plan is currently held up in the courts. Indiana is one of 28 states suing the EPA over the plan and the Supreme Court last year temporarily blocked implementation of the rules. Many of the provisions in the plan weren’t set to go into effect until 2022.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.