Reality sets in for the coal industry: Trump is powerless to save it

Coal plants now shutting down faster under Trump than Obama.

Candidate Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat, May 5, 2016 in Charleston, WV. CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/Washington Post via Getty Images
Candidate Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat, May 5, 2016 in Charleston, WV. CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump campaigned on a pledge to end the supposed “war on coal” that he claimed President Obama had been waging. But the reality is that more coal capacity was retired in the first 45 days of 2018 than in each of the first three years of the Obama administration.

In fact, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported last week in its 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook that by the end of last year, coal plant owners “had announced 12.5GW of planned retirements for 2018, foreshadowing the largest year for coal decommissioning since the 15GW of retirements in 2015.”

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Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, explained this week that “a coal plant has retired every 16 days since Trump was elected.” That’s the same pace as during the Obama administration’s full eight years, but much faster than the pace during Obama’s first term.

Coal plant retirements and announced retirements as of mid-February. CREDIT: Sierra Club.
Coal plant retirements and announced retirements as of mid-February. CREDIT: Sierra Club.

So do those numbers mean Trump is also waging a war on coal?

The truth is there never was a “war on coal.” There’s been two big battles, though. The first is an economic battle in the marketplace, where low cost renewables, natural gas, and energy efficiency became so cheap that costly and inflexible coal (and nuclear) plants simply could not compete.

Wind, solar power, and batteries have been coming down in price so fast that building new renewables is now cheaper than just running old coal plants.

The second battle is for public health, fought by state and federal governments along with local activists and the Sierra Club, to reduce some of the most dangerous and toxic air pollutants, a lot of which come from coal plants. Call it a “war on air pollution” or a “war to save lives.”

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Even Trump’s own Environmental Protection Agency put out an analysis last year concluding that its effort to undo Obama’s Clean Power Plan could kill some 100,000 Americans over the next few decades.

But it’s really economics that is driving the shift away from coal. And no matter how many public health protections the Trump administration undoes, they can’t change the fact that existing coal plants are albatrosses. Solar and wind power plants are so cheap that last year they beat natural gas in the race to replace dirty, costly coal.

If there had ever been a war on coal, then the numbers suggest Trump is still waging it. But in fact coal wasn’t doomed by politics, but by the desire for cheap power and clean air.