In recent years, coal communities and power plants, coal’s biggest clients, knew which way the industry was headed.
As the power sector’s reliance on coal has waned — and it shuttered coal-fired plants and embraced other fuels — many mining communities felt left behind. At least 18,000 coal mining jobs have been lost across Appalachia since 2012.
The presidential election this week of Republican Donald J. Trump, who harnessed strong support from coal country by promising to reverse the fortunes for the struggling industry, changes everything.
“A new administration and a new Congress means a new beginning,” wrote the National Mining Association, a Washington D.C.-based industry group that has aggressively challenged President Barack Obama’s clean air rules.
That message resonated in the region’s coalfields, where the county-level vote totals on Wednesday showed Mr. Trump won by a significantly larger margin than Republican candidate Mitt Romney did in 2012.
In Greene County, for example, Mr. Trump received 70 percent of the vote, compared with 58 percent who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. In Fayette County, about 64 percent of residents voted for Mr. Trump, higher than the 54 percent who voted for Mr. Romney. Washington County’s was smaller, but still 61 percent voted for the Republican this year compared with 56 in 2012.
President-elect Trump’s impact on energy policy could be extensive, although exactly the form that will take is not clear. One of the few concrete energy policy pillars heard from the candidate during the campaign is his support for fossil fuels. Mr. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, promised to roll back Mr. Obama’s clean air regulations.
During a rally in Pittsburgh in April, Mr. Trump told workers he would “bring back” coal and steel jobs — a promise that was questioned by analysts as unlikely or impossible. While coal power faces a spate of clean air and water regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it has also suffered from an ocean of cheaper natural gas.
On Wednesday, coal company stocks surged, with Canonsburg-based CNX Coal Resources LP closing 12 percent higher than on Election Day. CNX Coal owns 25 percent of the Bailey Mine complex in southwestern Pennsylvania while Consol Energy Inc., primarily an oil and gas company that owns the remaining interest in the coal complex, saw its stock price gain 9 percent after the election.
Meanwhile, oil and gas companies also gained ground, echoing Mr. Trump’s promise to support increased oil and gas production, whose glut in the U.S. has depressed prices; caused an industry downturn over the past year; and replaced coal as the fuel of choice for many power plants.
“Long term, the coal industry faces stiff competition from cheap, abundant natural gas,” wrote Bloomberg analysts Karen Ubelhart and Christopher Ciolino on Wednesday. “This pressure is unlikely to ease, given that Trump also wants to end all fracking restrictions.”
“Initiatives to ease both coal and natural gas restrictions would be at odds,” they warn. “These two industries can’t grow simultaneously.”
Blair Zimmerman, a Democratic county commissioner in Greene County and retired coal miner of 40 years, was disappointed by Mr. Trump’s election.
“We can’t have the blinders on,” he said. “We have to look beyond coal. Even if coal comes back — meaning rolling back some of the regulations that will let you sell more coal — there’s not going to be a lot of new coal mines in the area.”
He added, “I hope this government looks beyond the coal industry and says, OK, things are going to change, we need to help these people start the transition.”
Mr. Trump had his eye on getting miners back to work when he met with Robert Murray, CEO of Ohio-based coal miner Murray Energy Corp., earlier this year, according to Murray’s vice president of government affairs Michael Carey.
Speaking at a coal industry conference in Pittsburgh in September, Mr. Carey said a President Trump would struggle to bring Appalachian coal production back to its glory days. “It’s very simple. There’s not much he can do,” he said.
“He can stop the bleeding,” Mr. Carey said, noting Mr. Trump’s promise to halt all environmental regulations in the first 100 days.
One likely course of action is Mr. Trump’s plan to nominate a conservative justice to the fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court who will sway a final court decision on the Clean Power Plan. The spate of clean air rules, finalized by the EPA last year, seek to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. power sector by 32 percent by 2032.
A group of conservative states and interest groups, including the National Mining Association, sued the government over the Clean Power Plan. Regardless of the outcome in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court is likely to hear the case next year.
Mr. Trump could also cancel U.S. commitments to a global climate agreement brokered last year in Paris and lift the U.S. Department of Interior’s moratorium on coal mining on federal lands.
In September, Mr. Trump said he selected Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic and director of energy and environment policy at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead his EPA transition team.
Meanwhile, union coal miners were apparently divided by the candidates. For the second consecutive presidential election, the United Mine Workers of America declined to endorse a candidate after endorsing Mr. Obama in 2008.
At a UMWA rally at the Greene County Fairgrounds in April, miners seethed anger at both candidates and flung vitriol at coal companies for cutting retirement benefits in bankruptcy. The rally came on the heels of Ms. Clinton’s comment in March that she planned to “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”
A statement Wednesday from UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts contained little emotion: “The people have spoken. Millions are happy with the results, millions are not,” it read.
Mr. Roberts repeated the union’s call for Congress to pass legislation that would shore up pension funds — a bill that Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, have hesitated to support.
“President-elect Trump has spoken many times about addressing the serious economic disaster that is affecting large areas of Appalachia and other coal-producing areas of our country by putting coal miners back to work,” the statement continued. “No one is more interested in doing just exactly that than the UMWA.”
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