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As Trump Vows To Grow Industry, Countries Move Away From Coal


Countries are moving away from coal, including the United States. We're going to look now at what this trend means for President Trump's promise to bring back American coal jobs. Rob Godby researches energy and public policy at the University of Wyoming. Welcome to the show.

ROB GODBY: Hey, I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Less than a decade ago, the U.S. got about half its energy from coal, and today that figure is around 30 percent. So what are the chances that these numbers could turn around?

GODBY: Well, probably not really high right now. It all depends on what happens in the future, of course. But that long-term trend - most analysts think that it's probably going to continue over the long term.

SHAPIRO: And is that because natural gas is just getting cheaper and easier to access?

GODBY: Yeah, it is really. That's probably the biggest problem that coal faces in the domestic market. Natural gas, since the fracking boom - you know, since 2008 - has just collapsed in price as we've had so much more gas on the market. And then, of course, you can't forget that regulation is part of the issue, too. Many coal miners are really upset about that. But it's - you know, most analysts, I think, would argue that that's kind of the secondary effect. The primary one's really natural gas.

SHAPIRO: And so when Donald Trump talks about rolling back regulations to help the coal industry, it sounds like you're saying, well, maybe, yes, that could help, but it's not going to completely turnaround the trend lines.

GODBY: No, that's exactly right. So what President Trump has really promised to do is really enable all fossil fuels in the country. And, in fact, you know, you really can't enable both natural gas and coal simultaneously because they're are substitutes. You know, one has to give for the other.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the difference from one region to another. I think a lot of people associate coal production with Appalachia, but Wyoming, where you are, is actually by far the largest coal-producing state. How does the outlook differ from one region to the next?

GODBY: It really differs a lot. So really when you talk about coal, what you're talking about is more inter-region competition. So Appalachia has had a lot of challenges. It's competing not only against cheaper natural gas, but also cheap coal from other regions of the country - in particular Wyoming, but also the interior areas of the United States from Illinois all the way south to the Gulf.

SHAPIRO: What would be the best-case scenario for the American coal industry at this point?

GODBY: Well, you know, recent projections - the energy information agencies put out a few - were kind of looking at about - a little bit of a rebound. Natural gas is cheap, so a lot of people want to use it. That's causing prices to go up. So we're thinking that there may be about a 5 percent rebound in coal production in the next couple of years. But the way that impacts the areas is really different.

So, for example, in Appalachia, you're still looking at a coal production decline. Most of that production increase is going to occur in the West, and that probably will occur in Wyoming. So you might see about 600 new jobs, maybe more in the West, particularly in Wyoming. And you might see about a thousand more job losses in Appalachia. And the interior might get 150, 200 new jobs if you kind of look at these projections broadly.

SHAPIRO: That's the best-case scenario?

GODBY: That's really the best-case scenario. So we're not looking at major increases in coal production. I mean, we've got new natural gas generation coming online. And, you know, then there are the renewables that are really becoming less costly and really beginning to penetrate the market. Over the last decade, they've tripled in the amount they account for. And that's probably going to continue.

SHAPIRO: Is there much hope for an export market for American coal to be consumed globally?

GODBY: Some people hope for that, but it's really tough, right? So the markets that might want to use the coal are far away. They're typically in Southeast Asia, and that's a pretty long trip. So you need to have a really cheap coal region to produce the coal. Then you need to get it to the coast. And then you have to get it to Asia, which - and you're going to be competing against regional producers in that area, particularly Indonesia and Australia, so it's a tough market.

SHAPIRO: Rob Godby is director of the Energy Economics and Public Policy Center at the University of Wyoming. Thanks for your time.

GODBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.