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Trump appointee tells coal industry that his job is to be ‘an advocate’ for coal

At a coal conference in West Virginia, a political appointee with the Energy Department did not mince words about the administration's priorities.

A worker in the coal industry handles coal. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A worker in the coal industry handles coal. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A day after President Donald Trump dedicated a portion of his State of the Union address to declaring that his administration had “ended the war on clean coal,” a top political appointee with the Department of Energy told a room of coal industry representatives that his sole purpose within the administration was to advocate for coal.

“The good news is I’m with the federal government and I’m here to help,” Doug Matheney, special adviser for the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, said at the West Virginia Mining Symposium in Charleston. “I went to Washington, D.C., for one purpose and that was to help create coal jobs in the United States. That’s my total purpose for being there. I’m not a researcher, I’m not a scientist, I’m an advocate for the coal industry.”

The remarks, which were first reported by S&P Global, offer an unvarnished glimpse into the Trump administration’s priorities. A few hours after Matheney’s remarks became public, reports surfaced that the Trump administration was considering asking for a 72 percent cut to Department of Energy programs involving renewable energy research.

As a candidate, Trump acted as a staunch proponent of the coal industry, campaigning heavily on the false idea that repealing Obama-era environmental regulations would help return jobs to hard-hit areas like Appalachia. As president, he has initiated dozens of environmental rollbacks, many of which are aimed at lessening regulatory burdens on the coal industry — repealing rules aimed at protecting streams from mining waste, for instance, and putting on hold stricter limits for mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.

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Under Trump, the Department of Energy initiated a study looking at the resiliency of the United States electrical grid, which some critics characterized as an attempt to blame renewable energy or environmental regulations for declines in the coal industry. The study, published in August, found that automation and low natural gas prices were largely responsible for the closure of coal-fired power plants. But that didn’t stop Secretary of Energy Rick Perry from proposing a rule that would have forced utilities — and ultimately, ratepayers — to essentially subsidize power plants that maintain at least a 90-day supply of fuel on site. The rule, which critics argued would have amounted to subsidies for coal and nuclear, was unanimously rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in January.

Despite the Trump administration’s bullish anti-regulatory agenda, however, coal jobs saw only a modest, short-lived increase in the last year — and in many coal-producing states, mining jobs actually continued to decline. Despite Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, experts expect the decline in coal jobs to continue as automation and cheap natural gas continue to make coal a less economically-viable energy source. Since Trump took office last year, dozens of coal-fired power plants have announced their intention to retire, citing unfavorable economic conditions and cheaper alternatives, like natural gas and renewable energy.