President Trump’s rollback of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan this week will give a boost to one small but well-connected contingent: the coal industry, which contributed heavily to Trump’s campaign in hopes of reviving its sagging fortunes.
The coal industry has shrunk considerably since 2008. Total U.S. coal production is down by one-quarter, according to the Energy Information Administration, due to low-cost natural gas. But coal companies also blame President Obama’s climate regulations, so the industry concentrated its political giving in 2016 even more heavily than usual on Republicans. Of the $13.7 million donated by companies and their executives, just 3 percent went to Democrats, down from 9 percent in 2012. Coal company executives gave $240,000 to Donald Trump’s campaign, compared to just $2,819 to Hillary Clinton.
Ohio-based Murray Energy — the largest coal company in the U.S. — gave its biggest political donations ever: $250,000 to the Cleveland Host Committee, which helped fund the Republican National Convention; $200,000 to pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now; and $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund, the joint fundraising arm of the Trump campaign and the RNC. The company gave nothing to Democrats. Joe Craft, CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, the third-largest producer of coal in the East, was similarly generous, with almost $2 million in donations to pro-Trump super PACs.
In return, the coal industry got two things it has been wanting: rolled-back emissions limits on coal-fired power plants and reopening coal mining on public lands with low-cost leases. Those industry priorities were addressed in two policies Trump announced Tuesday: repealing the Clean Power Plan, which would have regulated carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and lifting the year-old moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal land. Murray Energy CEO Bob Massey called the Clean Power Plan “an illegal rulemaking which will be devastating to all Americans.” His company sued to block the rules in court. (Alliance did not respond to a query from VICE News and Murray declined to comment.)
Environmentalists and corporate accountability activists had argued that the coal leasing timeout, initiated last year, was long overdue, but Western coal companies that extract mainly from federal land were unhappy with it. The federal government charges far below market rates for coal extraction leases. It also didn’t factor in the cost of climate change. Using the government’s own estimates for those costs, Greenpeace calculated in 2014 that coal leases had already cost the public between $52 billion and $530 billion during the Obama administration. “It’s welfare for coal,” says Diana Best, Greenpeace’s senior climate and energy campaigner. Environmental groups had sued the administration to force a reevaluation of the coal leasing program.
Coal industry representatives argue coal has been unfairly targeted by regulations that produce small reductions in global carbon emissions at great cost to their businesses. With Hillary Clinton pledging on the campaign trail to continue Obama’s environmental agenda, some might say coal had no choice but to back her opponent.
“For the first time in eight-plus years we now have a president who is trying to revive the industry instead of destroy it,” wrote Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, the coal industry’s trade group, in an email to VICE News. “With a regulatory re-set, the president can undo some of the damage his predecessor has done with policies designed to retire coal capacity and slow or stop coal production.”
Tuesday’s executive orders are just some of Trump’s pro-coal policies. In February, Trump signed a bill repealing the EPA’s Stream Protection Rule, which would have stopped coal companies from dumping strip mining detritus in waterways. He is expected to name coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, a former aide to climate-science denier Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, as the second-ranking official at EPA. And Trump’s pledge to conduct a review of other Obama-era regulations of coal products such as smog and coal ash may result in more favors to the industry.
Despite Trump’s talk of bringing back coal jobs, his executive orders are unlikely to do more than temporarily pad the profit margins of coal companies. Coal has been declining for years, having gone from about half of the U.S.’s electricity production a decade ago to one-third today, according to the EIA. (The Clean Power rule was finalized in 2015, and it hasn’t taken effect yet.)
The industry has been hammered by increasing price competition from cleaner sources such as natural gas, wind, and solar. Even a temporary respite for the industry would barely bring back any coal jobs, because most have been lost to automation.
“You’re talking about, at best, a very, very trivial number of jobs,” says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. “This is a case where the automation story is true. Strip mining has replaced underground mining, and it takes far fewer people to operate a machine than to shovel coal out by hand.”
But “good government” activists say there’s definitely a connection between Trump’s coal industry fundraising and his positions. “The first thing in raising money from a special interest group is convincing them that you’re going to be their champion,” says Tyson Slocum, director of the Clean Energy program at Public Citizen. “If you are not producing, you will be defunded.”
The Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment about the connection between the Clean Power Plan repeal and coal industry donations, directing VICE News to join a press briefing where a White House official said that the purpose of repealing the Clean Power rule is “getting EPA back to its core mission,” which implicitly does not include combatting climate change.
And nothing is better for coal than ignoring climate change.