CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the most recent presidential debate, Republican Donald Trump said he would bring America’s energy market all the way back.
“We are killing, absolutely killing, our energy business in this country,” Trump said.
He expressed his support for all forms of energy, particularly coal and natural gas.
“We have found over the last seven years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet. So good,” he said.
West Virginians are expected to vote in large numbers for Trump, largely because of his promises to loosen federal regulation on fossil fuels. West Virginians hope for a resurgence of coal and continued strength of natural gas.
The complication could be that those two forms of energy — both vital to West Virginia’s economics — are competitors in the marketplace.
After Trump spoke at a meeting of the shale gas industry in Pittsburgh on Sept. 22, The Washington Post carried the headline: “Trump loves coal. Today he championed the industry that’s killing it.”
Coal and natural gas are on starkly different trajectories.
Coal has gone from more than half of the total source of U.S. power in 2001 to about a third today.
Natural gas has gone from about 15 percent of the U.S. power supply to a little less than 40 percent — now a greater share than coal.
That’s according to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.
“Coal had an advantage with respect to natural gas 10 or 15 years ago,” said John Deskins, the director of WVU’s business and economic research bureau. “The scale is being tipped toward natural gas away from coal.”
Deskins described three factors affecting coal demand: lower international demand created by slower growth, federal regulations and less expensive natural gas.
“So if Trump wants to roll back these regulatory policies, that would take away one source of downward pressure on coal demands,” Deskins said. “Since there’s three sources of downward pressure, it seems very unlikely it would take coal all the way back. It probably would alleviate some of the downward pressure on demand.”
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts expressed a similar point of view last week as a guest on MetroNews Talkline. The UMW has not endorsed a presidential candidate.
“The challenges of putting coal miners back to work — I’ll just point to when Donald Trump came to West Virginia and said everything’s going to be great and left,” Roberts said. “Some in the industry would caution him about that.
“It’s a tough proposition. Coal mining is in a phase right now where it’s extremely difficult. We’re in direct competition with natural gas and a lot of utilities have switched from using coal to natural gas because of how cheap it is and how friendly it is to the EPA. The EPA is not nearly as hard to natural gas as it is to coal.”
Encouraging coal markets to rally to where they once were would require market manipulation on a massive scale, said Erin Burns, clean energy policy adviser for Third Way Energy, a centrist think tank.
Her organization featured a September article called “Digging himself into a hole: Trump’s empty coal promises.”
Restoring the previous norm for coal and natural gas would require bringing coal production back to its peak of 1.16 billion short tons in 2006, according to the analysis by Third Way.
Forcing natural gas demand down to coal’s level would require an $11 billion a year tax on the natural gas industry, the think tank theorized.
Or, going in the other direction, $11 billion could be provided to the coal industry in the form of subsidies to bring it to where natural gas is.
“Even those kind of impossible scenarios aren’t going to fix anything,” Burns said.
Proposals such as funding for research and development into clean coal technology or tax credits to encourage carbon capture projects would be more effective ways to help the coal industry, Burns suggested.
“There are ways to support coal and coal miners that are separate from manipulating the markets,” said Burns, who grew up in Kenova. “West Virginia, especially in the coal fields, is facing serious issues, and you need a plan. That’s not what he’s providing.”
When Trump spoke to the annual Shale Insight conference on Sept. 22 in Pittsburgh, he promised to encourage many forms of U.S. energy production. He promised to lift restrictions on American energy, to end the war on coal, to unlock shale and gas and to open federal lands for oil and gas production.
“We need an America-First energy plan,” Trump said.
Ken Silverstein’s headline after that was: “Trump’s energy talk to shale gas producers gives them the shaft.”
“He speaks to the crowd in a way that he thinks will satisfy their need,” Silverstein said. “But he doesn’t think through what he’s saying or know enough about the electricity marketplace or the way regulations are written or implemented.”
Silverstein is a Charleston resident who analyzes global energy issues for publications such as Forbes. He says Trump can’t be all things to all energy markets.
“They’re vicious competitors at this point,” Silverstein said. “The reality is that natural gas is winning. It’s winning in the marketplace for consumers demanding cleaner fuels. It’s winning because the technology is available to get it out of the ground so it has become abundant and cheap.
“So, really, the two are going head to head. So you cannot be both pro-coal and pro-gas.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for both in the marketplace — just that one is going to be stronger than the other.
“The conclusion I’ve drawn is — are the interests of these two fuels mutually exclusive? No, they are not mutually exclusive. But right now the natural gas industry has a lot more marbles than the coal industry. That’s not likely to change any time soon. We live in a market economy. The best man wins,” Silverstein said.
“It’s not to say that you and I can’t both be great tennis players. But in the end only one of us is going to win a tournament. One is going to come in second place.”
West Virginians who go to the polls on Nov. 8 seem ready to go for Trump in large numbers, particularly because of his energy outlook.
Those voters are comparing what they hear from Trump to their perception of Hillary Clinton, whose widely discussed comment “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” is now baked into many West Virginians’ view.
During last Sunday’s debate, Clinton discussed her own energy outlook. She said America needs to continue to be energy-independent. She described natural gas as a bridge fuel needed to fight global warming. And she expressed support for wind and solar.
She also said her policies would be sensitive to the economic hardships of communities that have benefited from coal mining.
“I support moving toward more clean renewable energy as quickly as we can. I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses,” she said.
“But I also want to be sure we don’t leave people behind. That’s why I’m the only candidate from the very beginning of this campaign who had a plan to help us revitalize coal country because those coal miners and their fathers and their grandfathers they dug that coal out, lot of them lost their lives, they were injured, but they turned the lights on and they powered our factories. I don’t want to walk away from them, so we’ve got to do something for them.”
West Virginians who know their state’s economy is hurting still might find Trump’s imperfect ideas on energy preferable.
“We’ve got a world that’s hungry for energy,” said Greg Kozera, a Charleston resident and author who is active with the Virginia Oil and Gas Association. “The only forms of energy that can provide what we need is natural gas, coal and nuclear.”
Kozera argues that if those energy forms are suppressed by regulation then prices will go up and America will become dependent on foreign sources of fuel.
“Mountaineers are always free, and we’re not free if someone else is telling us what we’re going to pay,” Kozera said. “Trump is way ahead. It’s better for the planet, better fro our pocketbooks, better for our economy.”