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Report details sharp declines in U.S. coal industry

SALT LAKE CITY — The nation's three major coal-producing regions, including the West, experienced the sharpest declines in production in 29 years for 2015 and are on pace this year to hit declines even more severe.

Employment numbers, too, were at the lowest levels for coal miners since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began tracking the statistic in 1978, experiencing a 12 percent drop in one year. Coal consumption saw a 23 percent decrease in the first seven months of 2016, compared with 2015.

These dismal numbers may paint a omninous future for the coal industry in Utah and elsewhere in the United States, but some are hopeful a Donald Trump presidency next year will begin to stop the hemorrhaging, if not reverse it.

"(Trump) has expressed his support for using our domestic resources responsibly. That is what we have been advocating all along, so we are optimistic that better times are ahead," said Mark Compton, president of the Utah Mining Association.

Compton said he is hopeful that Trump will roll back regulations that "have made it impossible to burn coal.

"Certainly the policies and regulations from the current administration have not helped coal production or employment, and obviously competition from lower priced natural gas has had an impact as well," he said.

John Coequyt, the Sierra Club's national director of federal and international climate programs, rebuked the notion that the coal industry will experience any resurrection, with or without Trump's intervention.

"We don't think most of what Trump is going to do is going to make a big difference," Coequyt said, adding that a significant number of the nation's coal plants are on their way to retirement.

"We don't see it reversing. We think the best thing for companies and communities to do is to plan," he said.

The coal industry's future became a flash point in the 2016 presidential campaign after Democratic contender Hillary Clinton said she'd shut down coal mines and put coal miners out of work and instead offer coal country opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

Trump campaigned on a platform of industry support and anti-regulation.

Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter said he's supportive of Trump rolling back a three-year federal moratorium on any new coal leasing and Obama's Clean Power Plan — under a stay awaiting a federal court ruling — so Utah's battered coal country could see some stability.

Closure of the Deer Creek Mine and the Hunter Power Plant have cost the area a direct loss of 500 jobs and many more in ancillary industries, Potter said.

"It's definitely hurt us and taken a toll on us," he said.

Like Coequyt, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's Steve Bloch said he doesn't believe Trump is capable of reviving the industry.

"At the end of the day, President Trump is not able to change time, and time has largely marched past coal production and coal-fired power plants in this country," Bloch said.

Potter, however, is hopeful that with Trump's promise to tap into the nation's array of natural resources, there will be an even greater push by the U.S. Department of Energy to invest in research and find alternative uses for coal.

Just last month, the federal government gave the University of Utah $790,000 as part of a $1.6 million research project to transform coal into carbon fiber for use in an array of manufacturing.

"We believe there will be greater emphasis on that moving forward," Potter said, "so we can retool coal not only for power consumption, but for other uses as well."