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In our opinion: A coal revival still a stretch

In the last decade, energy producers have been steadily abandoning the use of coal, and even radical changes in federal policy aren’t likely to reverse that course.
In the last decade, energy producers have been steadily abandoning the use of coal, and even radical changes in federal policy aren’t likely to reverse that course.
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Those in the coal-producing regions of the country were encouraged by the campaign promises of President-elect Donald Trump to work toward the revival of the nation’s coal industry. But, downward consumption trends suggest restoring the industry to any semblance of its previous prosperity will be difficult, if not impossible.

In the last decade, energy producers have been steadily abandoning the use of coal, and even radical changes in federal policy aren’t likely to reverse that course. Utah policy makers should plan for continued decline even as a coal-friendly administration takes office.

Between 2001 and 2015, production of coal dropped 10 percent while consumption dropped 13 percent, and the rate of decline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, appears to be accelerating. In the first seven months of 2016, for example, consumption levels were down 23 percent from the previous year.

Not surprisingly, employment numbers have also plummeted to historic lows, dropping 12 percent in the last year. In Utah, demand for electricity produced by locally mined coal dropped 64 percent between 2008 and 2013, leading to closures or scale-backs at area mining and power generating facilities. Several hundred jobs have been lost, bringing significant social and economic disruption to eastern Utah’s coal country.

Utah mining interests say they are heartened by the prospect of a pro-coal Trump administration, but industry observers have said it’s difficult to imagine what policies could emanate from the White House that would create sufficient incentive to reopen mines and re-start coal-fired generators, at least in large numbers.

Diminished demand for coal is not all the result of government regulation. Cheaper and more available natural gas has taken away a big share of the electricity market. Many former customers of coal have quite simply moved on, and bringing them back would require policy changes beyond removing environmental regulations. The foreign market for Utah coal has also decreased substantially, and Washington has little ability to rekindle overseas demand.

It’s possible the new administration could take action that would at least stabilize the coal market. Putting aside environmental concerns, a stabilized coal industry in Utah would be a significant short-term economic gain for the state, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on coal. This would be of comfort to affected regions in the state. So would the success of ongoing initiatives to find ways to better use coal as a resource. An example is a research project at the University of Utah, fueled by a $1.6 million federal grant, to explore the use of coal in developing valuable carbon fiber composite products, potentially opening up new markets. Separately, the federal government has also earmarked money to help communities impacted by diminishing coal demand to help displaced workers find new job opportunities.

The new administration should not ratchet back those efforts, regardless of what it may do to try and spur a rebirth of coal as a dominant energy source. Many jobs have been lost and many communities have been harshly shaken by a long-term tidal change in global energy markets. The full restoration of the coal industry, however, is not likely something that can be accomplished by the stroke of a president’s pen.