Columbia University Report Shows that Environmental Regulations are Not the Primary Threats to Coal

A recent report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy has found that declines in coal generation, while due to a variety of factors, are unlikely to be significantly reversed by implementing all the actions in last month’s energy Executive Order.  In Can Coal Make a Comeback?, researchers looked at the reasons for the decline in U.S. coal consumption of 20% from 2011 to 2015—and the bankruptcy filings of a number of coal mining companies.  The report also looks at the impacts on those who work in the coal industry and their communities.  At the end of 2011, there were over 130,000 people working in the coal mining industry; now that number is just over 70,000.  And drops in coal production have reduced tax revenue in coal communities.

This report finds that 49% of the decline in U.S. coal consumption was due to decreased natural gas prices, 26% was due to decreased electricity demand, and 18% was due to growth in renewables.  Environmental regulations accelerated coal generator retirements, but were less significant contributors to the overall decline.  The report also finds that issues in international coal markets—including lower Chinese coal demand that depressed global prices—were a relatively large factor.

The report identifies increases in natural gas prices as a crucial factor for coal to rebound.  Rolling back environmental regulations promulgated under the Obama Administration would not, standing alone, markedly increase coal consumption.  (The report assumed the removal of the Clean Power Plan, CO2 New Source Performance Standards for new power plants, methane rules for new oil and gas production, methane rules for new and existing oil and gas production on federal lands, and the coal leasing moratorium on federal lands.)

On employment, the report is skeptical that a full reversal to pre-2015 levels is likely to occur.  While acknowledging the difficulties of revitalizing impacted communities, the report discusses several community-driven economic diversification efforts that may provide some relief rather than “false hope that the glory days can be revived.”  The report identifies federal government actions that can assist these programs, including infrastructure investment, tax credits, and repurposing of abandoned mine land.

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