Coal industry sees slight improvement in past year

April 4, 2018

In the year since President Trump signed an executive order to promote the coal industry by rolling back environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration the U.S. coal industry has seen a slight uptick in employment and production. However, domestic consumption and prices are down slightly.

Regardless, the nation’s top lobbying group for the mining industry sees a positive wave for the industry.

“What we’re hearing from our leadership, as well as the rank and file, is we’ve got a future,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told USA Today. “We’re back in business.”

No one is naïve enough to think that coal will return anytime soon to its glory days, when it fueled more than half of the nation’s electricity generation, employment reflected robust production and coal was fetching high prices in overseas steelmaking centers such as Brazil, China, Japan and South Korea, Popovich said.

But after eight years of President Obama and environmental policies the industry considered hostile, coal leaders feel Trump is putting them back on a level playing field with natural gas and other cleaner forms of energy.

“What has happened, I think, is it has given the industry and investors the assurance that at least their government is not going to discourage production and we only have to deal with the marketplace,” Popovich said.

Roughly 2,000 new coal jobs were created during Trump’s first eight months in office, but those numbers started to level off last October. By the end of 2017, the total number of coal jobs gained over the previous year was just 900, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Preliminary figures for 2018 show a slight uptick, with a net gain of 1,300 coal mining jobs during Trump’s presidency.

Coal production has risen slightly, about 6 percent last year, from 660 Mt (728 million st) in 2016 to 702 Mt (774 million st) in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But analysts attribute the increase in part to the bankruptcy-caused restructuring of several major coal producers, which resulted in lower production costs.

Coal consumption last year fell to 650 Mt (717 million st), slightly lower than the previous year. Even more alarming for the industry: Almost all domestic coal consumption is in the power sector, yet despite an increase in natural gas prices in 2017, coal’s share of power generation for the year was just 30 percent, the lowest on record and lower than natural gas for the second year in a row.

One bright spot last year was coal exports, which are expected to total 88 Mt (97 million st) in 2017, a 61 percent increase over the year before.

But analysts say the boost in exports is attributable to international market factors beyond the Trump administration’s influence and is likely to be short-lived. The demand for U.S. coal increased last year in China, Japan and India when a tropical cyclone disrupted their supply from Australia. Coal exports are expected to decrease in both 2018 and 2019, the Energy Information Administration projects.


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