THE FIRST 100 DAYS: Coal at a Crossroads

By T.L. Headley, American Coal Council

To state the painfully obvious, the past eight years have been difficult for the nation’s coal industry.

In 2008, coal production was booming. The industry was experiencing a shortage of miners and support personnel and was actively recruiting at high schools and colleges for people interested in the industry as a career. The future seemed bright.

That began to change on January 20, 2008, when President Barack Obama took office as the nation’s 44th president. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama saw coal as a problem. Concerned about climate change and the impact of coal on the environment, Obama moved quickly to begin pushing legislation and regulations that restricted the production and use of coal. It seemed that each new regulation and each new executive order increased the cost of production or restricted the use of coal.

In the ensuing years, coal companies have seen large swathes of their marketplace disappear – particularly the market for thermal coal used in power generation, as 400 coal‐fired boilers producing 60,000 MW of electricity closed down or converted to other fuels.

Domestic coal production has fallen by almost 40 percent between 2009 and 2016. Tens of thousands of coal miners and support workers lost their jobs. With rare exceptions, every year seemed worse than the last. The industry was stretched beyond the breaking point. The news media declared coal dead – a “fossil of our industrial past.”

To be clear, regulations were not the only factor in the downturn. Market competition from abundant, low‐priced natural gas, periodic large coal stockpiles on the ground, and the ongoing international economic slowdown, but the impact of the Obama‐era regulations were at the core of much of the problems.

That began to change again on January 20, 2017 when new President Donald Trump succeeded Obama. Trump has signaled a commitment to the coal industry. Recent months have seen renewed growth as markets came into equilibrium, metallurgical markets soared, and production increased. Some idled mines began to reopen, putting some miners back to work, and plans for some new mines took shape.