The Trump administration’s rolling back of rules protecting the environment from hazardous coal plant waste comes late in the game — coal isn’t growing, nor is there much financial impetus to revive the industry.
Coal is losing market share to renewables and natural gas. The rollback today of two measures enacted in 2015 is the latest effort by President Donald Trump to bolster the coal industry. Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has been reviewing regulations that it claims impede economic development and raise costs for producers.
Expecting investors to shift away from renewables and into coal doesn’t make much sense, analyst said.
“The cost of running existing coal plants is higher than the cost to run gas plants, or to build and run new renewables,” Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Karma. “As for new coal plants, this change is so very small that I do not believe that any investment committee is going to revisit the decision to abandon plans for new coal plants.”
The changes weaken rules governing the disposal of the residue that comes from burning coal. The waste, which includes arsenic, lead and mercury, is mixed with water and then stored in ponds that sometimes leak into groundwater or waterways. The new regulations allow extensions that can permit unlined coal ash waste ponds to stay open until 2028.
“The cost of running existing coal plants is higher than the cost to run gas plants, or to build and run new renewables.”
The original measure required that ponds leaking contaminants in excess federal environmental standards to close by last April. Last year, the Trump administration extended the deadline to October 2020.
“Today’s proposed actions were triggered by court rulings and petitions for reconsideration on two 2015 rules that placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
The change in the regulatory climate hasn’t stemmed coal’s decline. Murray Energy, the country’s largest private coal producer, declared bankruptcy last week. U.S. electricity plants used 24% less coal in the second quarter of this year, the most recent period with data, than during the same period of 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. Coal production in September was down 16% from January 2017, when Trump took office, and is headed for the lowest annual total in more than 40 years, EIA data show.
The shrinking of the coal industry has coincided with a boom in the renewable energy and natural gas sectors. Natural gas is projected to provide 37% of U.S. electricity this year, up from 26% in 2013, according to the EIA. During the same period renewables went from 13% to a projected 19% of the total in 2019, while coal is seen dropping from 40% to 25%.
Almost 75% of U.S. coal-fired power plants generate electricity that is more expensive than local renewable resources, according to a March report from Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy firm.
“When the variable operating costs of existing coal were examined, coal ash handling was too small to be a factor,” Jacobs said. “Now it is smaller.”
While helping the bottom line of some utilities that use coal, the change in environmental regulations won’t be enough to spur a coal renaissance. This shouldn’t have an impact on the decisions of impact investors looking at renewable startups.