I was listening to Colorado Public Radio yesterday. The news segments focusing on regional topics spent a fair amount of time discussing the Trump administration's decision to roll back regulations on clear air requirements for coal burning power plants. In addition, federal lands will once again be open for leases for mining.
Naturally, there are a fair number of people in the Colorado coal industry now doing the happy dance. In the bizarro alternate universe in which they live, they believe the glory days of coal mining are about to magically return. It's odd how people can be given information but be unable to understand its implications.
First, there was a lot of talk about how new access to federal land would give western coal a competitive edge. It's cheaper to mine on land leased from the Bureau of Land Management than it is to try to negotiate leases or purchase agreements for private land. Translation: the coal industry has become so marginal that if it doesn't get subsidized by the government it can't make a profit. If you need welfare to survive, your industry is not particularly competitive.
Second, there are no new coal burning power plants being built. Whatever the domestic market for coal is right now, that's basically it. Coal mines have closed not because they lacked access to ore but because the market for that ore was saturated. The electrical power industry has figured out that natural gas is a lot easier and cheaper to work with. In fact, not only are no new coal burning plants being built, existing ones are being converted to burn gas or biomass. Further, despite the best efforts of the fossil fuels industries to slow down wind and solar power generation, both areas are still growing. Bottom line: there are fewer buyers for coal, at least domestically.
Third, one of the optimistic notes sounded by the coal people was the export market. Well, good luck with that one, guys, when the Current Occupant of the White House is busy ticking off most of the world. It's going to get harder and harder to export anything when other countries respond to Trump's protectionist policies by throwing up barriers of their own. Plus, of course, other countries that do use coal are much more grounded in reality than the U.S. is. Their politicians actually believe in science, which is why China now leads the world in manufacturing solar panels. They're working hard at moving away from coal, and they're not alone.
But, hey, one of the coal mines in Colorado just added 20 people to its payroll -- twenty! -- so obviously massive growth in mining is just around the corner.