Donald Trump vowed to revive the coal industry but figures show its future is as bleak as ever Long-term growth and hiring prospects remain weak despite administration’s policy changes to make energy sector more competitive at expense of environmental concerns

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us-coal.jpgEarth moving equipment sits by a coal pile at the Century Mine in Beallsville, Ohio Joshua Roberts/Reuters

A year after Donald Trump was elected President on a promise to revive the ailing US coal industry, the sector’s long-term prospects for growth and hiring remain as bleak as ever.

A Reuters review of mining data shows an industry that has seen only modest gains in jobs and production this year – much of it from a temporary up-tick in foreign demand for US coal rather than presidential policy changes.

US utilities are shutting coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace and shifting to cheap natural gas, along with wind and solar power. And domestic demand makes up about 90 percent of the market for US coal.

”We’re not planning to build any additional coal facilities,“ said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest US utilities. “The future for coal is dictated by economics… and you can’t make those kinds of investments based on one administration’s politics.”

Coal plants now make up 47 percent of AEP’s capacity for power generation, a figure it plans to shrink to 33 percent by 2030.

The situation highlights the limitations of presidential policy on major industries and global economic trends. As some energy experts have said all along, the forces that will make or break mining are well beyond the powers of the Oval Office.

A White House official did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has likely done all he can do to help the industry, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents major US coal companies.

“The government is no longer against us,“ he said. ”We now only have market forces to contend with.”

Trump has taken action on many promises he made to coal interests in states that helped him win the election.

The President started the process of killing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce carbon emissions from power plants; ended an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands; ditched limits on dumping coal waste into streams; and started withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Now Trump’s Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, is attempting to push a rule through the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would subsidise power plants that store at least a 90-day supply of coal on site. The goal is to extend the life of some coal burning power plants, a move Perry says will make the electric grid more reliable.

While the full impact of Trump’s coal policy could take years to understand, the changes so far are unlikely to boost domestic demand, energy analysts and utility officials said.

Trump has cast the coal industry as a victim of burdensome regulation.

The industry has lost more than 40 percent of its work force in less than a decade and seen production drop to its lowest levels since 1978. Its share of the power market has fallen to less than a third from about half in 2003.

“We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 percent,” Trump said at a rally in Virginia in August of 2016.

So far, progress has been limited.

US coal production is on track to rise more than 8 percent in 2017 over the previous year, to 790 million tonnes, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). But 2018 output is expected to decline.

The number of coal miners has also risen slightly to 51,900 in October, up about 2,200 since November 2016 – but down about 70 percent from a 1985 peak, according to the Labour Department.

On 1 November, Trump cited the modest production increases in a Tweet, saying, “It is finally happening for our great clean coal miners!”

But these increases are largely attributable to demand for US coal from Asian steel mills after temporary outages from their usual suppliers in Australia, according to James Stevenson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit.

During the first six months of 2017, Asian countries took in 7.5 million short tonnes of US coal, up 97 percent over the same period in 2016, according to the EIA.

That demand will soon fade, Stevenson said.

“We are not going to get a repeat of 2017,” he said of the spike in exports.

Forecasts from utilities and the US government reveal little reason for hope of a sustained coal rebound.

Utilities are expected to shut down more than 13,600 megawatts of coal plant capacity in 2018. That follows a loss of nearly 8,000 MW this year and 13,000 MW in 2016, according to EIA and Thomson Reuters data.

By 2025, coal-fired power plant capacity will dip to 226,380 MW, down about 30 percent from 2011, according to EIA.

Three Texas coal plants owned by Vistra Energy subsidiary Luminant are among the latest to close, bringing the number of plants that shut, or plan to, to 265 since 2010 – a figure higher than the 258 plants that remain, according to the Sierra Club, which has campaigned against coal.

Vistra said the closures were forced by lower prices for natural gas and renewable power – and not by environmental regulations.

Duke Energy, one of the country’s largest utilities, has shut down more than 5,400 MW of coal capacity since 2011 and plans to shed another 2,000 MW by 2024.

Over the next decade, Duke plans to invest $11 billion in new natural gas and renewable power – and nothing in new coal-fired generation, said spokesman Rick Rhodes.

A 2 November report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis – which has two of the largest coal producers in its district, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal – said coal-fired power plants “may eventually become obsolete.”

Coal companies believe they can survive despite the troubling market outlook.

Peabody expects a “modest number” of coal power plant retirements in the coming years, with some of that lost capacity shifting to remaining plants that will increase output, spokesman Vic Svec said. Arch spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi offered a similar forecast.

Robert Murray, the chief executive of privately-held Murray Energy – one of America’s biggest underground miners – said Trump could do more for the industry. The administration, Murray said, should end tax breaks for wind and solar power and reverse an EPA finding that carbon emissions endanger human health.

But Trump’s tax bill last week preserved most solar incentives, which have bi-partisan backing. And the EPA has so far steered clear of the so-called “endangerment finding” on emissions that is the basis of many fossil-fuel regulations, given the breadth of scientific evidence that would be needed to reverse it.

Murray Energy, meanwhile, announced on 31 October it will buy a 30.5 percent stake in a coal-mining partnership in Utah called Canyon Consolidated Resources.

The deal might help the companies cut costs, but it’s unlikely to help workers: Murray said about 200 of 1,000 jobs in Utah could be lost.

By Timothy Gardner/Reuters

Posted by The NON-Conformist


Environmental Racism Continues to Deny Black People a Chance for a Healthy Community

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There’s a reason why Black communities are most often the hosts for waste and sewage facilities, power plants and land fills. For years, our government got away with dumping in and degrading the environment of urban areas, a form of environmental racism that has been shown to have long-lasting consequences on the health and well-being of residents.

There was a time when Newark, N.J., was regarded as an emblem of American industrialism. The city is home to the third-largest port in the nation and is a major hub for shipping, air and rail, providing an abundance of white-collar jobs and making it a popular commute for nearby New Yorkers. Though good for the economy, these developments have wrought an environmental plague upon the residents of Newark, a majority Black city. As the Trump administration favors oil, gas and coal industries over the disenfranchised communities most impacted by their greed, it will be up to cities like Newark to step up and demand accountability on a local level.

According to an estimate by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, diesel particulate levels surrounding the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal are up to 1,000 times greater than levels considered safe to breathe. Newark holds the nation’s second-greatest cancer risk due to diesel emissions and 1 child in every 4 suffers from asthma. This pollution has led to children living in the city being hospitalized at a rate 150-percent greater than the rest of New Jersey and asthma attacks are now a leading cause of school absenteeism in the region. Newark is just one example of how the health of our environment directly impacts the health of the people who live there, children and the elderly in particular.

Despite these conditions, government at all levels has been slow to act. A program funded by the Port Authority that would have replaced old trucks to potentially reduce emissions by 95 percent was abandoned early last year, despite similar programs being successfully executed in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the country’s fifth- and 10th-largest ports, respectively. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spent half-a-billion dollars redeveloping the Atlantic City airport and $1.8 billion repairing the crumbling Pulaski Skyway, which connects Jersey City with Newark. Christie has been considered one of the least friendly governors to the concerns of environmental health disparities effecting the Black community. Many consider the end of Christie’s term this year as an opportunity to elect a more environmentally aware politician.

Instead, the fight against environmental racism has been left to people like Newark Congressman Donald J. Payne, who is doing his part to raise awareness of environmental injustices both within his city and nationwide. In an article published on Earth Day, he criticized the Trump administration’s anti-climate policies as a direct threat to the health of African-American communities and called for environmental justice to become a civil rights issue. He pointed to Newark’s history-making ordinance, which requires city developers requesting environmental permits to provide the city with the project’s potential environmental impacts, as an example of how affected cities can fight back. The ordinance was first proposed to Newark officials in 2012 by the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and allied organizations, and in 2014, when Ras Baraka was elected mayor of Newark, he committed to passing the ordinance in his transition plan.

Often praised for his environmental legacy, former President Barack Obama understood that poor communities of color suffer the most when we deny the realities of environmental racism and climate change. During his two terms as president, Obama passed a record number of environmental regulations and protected over 550 million acres of land — more than double the amount of famous conservationist Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately, climate change denial and the focus on increasing fossil fuels appears to now be a platform under the Trump administration, which wasted no time in rolling back Obama’s history-making environmental protections. Since being in office, Trump has proposed to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by up to 31 percent and mandated that all EPA studies and data be reviewed by political staffers before being released to the public. He’s gutted Obama’s Clean Power Plan, ordered a review of federal protected lands and just last week signed an executive order allowing offshore drilling for oil and gas. It was these actions that pushed Mustafa Ali, head of the EPA’s Office on Environmental Justice, to resign from his post after a 24-year career, telling reporters that he could not be a part of the department’s new direction. In his resignation letter, Ali pleaded with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to reconsider defunding programs aimed at assisting disadvantaged areas.

No longer able to rely on federal support, local and state governments must step up and pass legislation that prioritizes environmental justice. Improving infrastructure to provide residents with more walkable cities, creating more green spaces and establishing sensible emissions regulations are just a few steps that can be taken to minimize pollution and maximize local quality of life.

Like most issues, environmental justice is best achieved through cooperation. Without practical guidance from the federal government, it will be up to states, cities and communities to work together to bridge the divide. Climate issues and environmental racism are pressing concerns for Black communities and President Trump, who just cleared 100 days in office, has already taken actions that will devastate our environment for years to come. As Payne suggests in his column, it will now fall upon concerned citizens to go the extra mile to stay informed about local policies and demand equal involvement in environmental decision-making. We must push for environmental literacy and look critically at the way we casually contribute to the deterioration of our communities by refusing to recycle or littering our streets. Civil rights activists must recognize the role of environmental justice in helping us achieve equality so that, together, we can progress toward a healthier future.

By Danielle Dorsey/Atlantablackstar

Posted by The NON-Conformist

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