Trump, world powers fight to save coal as U.S. consumption drops to lowest rate in 40 years

U.S. coal has dropped to its lowest consumption rate in almost 40 years despite ongoing Trump administration efforts to revive the dying industry, according to a new federal report. The findings come as countries like Poland, this year’s host of the U.N. COP24 climate conference, continue to promote coal, while the United States eyes further measures to aid the industry.

In a report released Tuesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected that 2018 is likely to be the worst for coal consumption since 1979, falling to 691 million short tons (MMst), or a 4 percent decrease from 2017. That number reflects an overall 44 percent drop since 2007. Coal-fired plants also closed this year at their second-greatest shutdown rate on record, spelling further trouble for the industry.

Coal’s failure is largely thanks to cheaper and more abundant energy options, including natural gas and renewable alternatives like wind and solar power. Environmental protections and awareness have also heightened the industry’s demise, according to EIA, including the emissions standards mandated by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule imposed in 2015.

“Natural gas prices have stayed relatively low since domestic natural gas production began to grow in 2007. This period of sustained, low natural gas prices has kept the cost of generating electricity with natural gas competitive with generation from coal,” the report notes. The EIA goes on to cite “age of generators” and “changes in regional electricity demand” as other factors driving coal’s decline, along with renewables.

Coal is responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gases linked to energy. The industry has also been singled out for its damaging pollution as the world works to rapidly combat climate change. In light of the EIA report, green groups called on President Donald Trump to shift away from support for coal and towards the renewable power already embraced in parts of the United States.

“The trend lines showing the demise of coal shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, including those in the Trump administration and coal industry executives,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook in a statement Tuesday. “There are times when the entire state of California, the fifth largest economy in the world, is powered entirely by renewable energy sources, and other states from across the country are actively pursuing clean energy policies.”

Coal industry on steady decline under Trump’s leadership

But Trump has made reviving the coal industry a core pillar of his presidency. And the EIA report is unlikely to shift that emphasis; on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce another roll back on regulations for new coal-fired power plants.

Trump, who declared in his first State of the Union address that his administration has “ended the war on clean coal,” has also this year directed the Energy Department to look into saving failed coal plants.

That plan has centered on pushing grid operators to purchase electricity from both coal and nuclear plants eyeing closure, to the dismay of not only the renewable sector but also oil and gas. Experts have largely panned the effort along with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which unanimously shot down a proposed bailout in January.

But that’s about to change. The administration is set to score a win, with Department of Energy (DOE) official Bernard McNamee expected to receive the votes to become a member of FERC on Wednesday afternoon. McNamee is known for supporting both coal and nuclear power.

U.S. reluctance under Trump to let go of coal has wider implications on the global stage. This is in part reflected by the annual U.N. climate talks held this year in Katowice, Poland. The country is known for its reliance on the coal industry, which contributes heavily to annual pollution, especially during cold and brutal winters where smog associated with coal usage is common. Katowice itself is in the heart of Polish coal country and Poland is the biggest producer of hard coal in the European Union.

Under the Obama administration, the United States signed onto the Paris agreement and committed contributions to efforts like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which assists developing countries in sustainable transitions away from fossil fuels.

But Trump has begun the withdrawal process from the Paris agreement, in addition to backing out of GCF contributions and working to promote U.S. coal abroad. Such efforts have an impact on coal-reliant countries like India, in addition to taking pressure off of Poland and nations slow to move away from coal.

And they’ve empowered the attitude that has prevailed in Katowice this week. COP24 is sponsored by multiple coal companies and the talks have featured booths showcasing items like coal soap, among others.

Yes, this really is the Poland stand at #COP24, promoting coal… 🤦‍♀️🤦‍♂️ pic.twitter.com/zF6z2hA2JL

— FYEG (@FYEG) December 4, 2018

Rather than offering any pushback, Trump administration officials and U.S. energy industry executives are instead set to meet for a side event next Monday at the climate conference to showcase fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Efforts to prop up coal come as other fossil fuels, namely oil and gas, continue to gain popularity in the West — which means that, despite coal’s decline, global emissions are still rising. In a statement Tuesday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that carbon emissions from wealthy nations are set to rise in 2018 following a five-year decline, thanks largely to growing natural gas and oil reliance in countries like the United States.