Trump promises a US coal revival, but the world's energy authority begs to differ

Coal is excavated.
Jim Urquhart | Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to put coal miners back to work and deliver 1,000 years of clean coal, but the world's leading energy authority on Wednesday delivered a starkly different forecast.

The International Energy Agency sees little respite for the coal industry in its 2016 World Energy Outlook. Over the next five years, the agency projects U.S. coal companies will continue to cut capacity to battle falling demand, a global oversupply and slumping prices.

"With no global upturn in demand in sight for coal, the search for market equilibrium depends on cuts to supply capacity, mainly in China and the United States," the IEA said.

That sets up a difficult backdrop for Trump's first term. The Republican has promised to turn the tide for U.S. coal miners by rolling back regulations and ending President Barack Obama's moratorium on new coal mining on federal land.

The IEA sees global market forces standing in the way of a U.S. coal recovery. Abundant and low-cost natural gas will continue to eat into coal's share of electricity production. Climate change policies will expedite the retirement of old, inefficient coal-fired plants. The share of steel produced in coal furnaces will continue to fall.

Nearly half of U.S. coal production is wrapped up in bankruptcy right now, and the industry needs to take some bitter medicine before it gets better, the IEA says. U.S. coal companies must further cut capacity above and beyond today's wave of consolidation and mine closures for the industry to become economically sustainable, in its view.

The IEA believes about three-quarters of current U.S. coal capacity can operate profitably once the industry works through a painful debt restructuring. It assumes the remaining coal companies return to health in the early 2020s.

But even then, the IEA considers a scenario in which "cutthroat competition" keeps global markets swimming in too much coal, putting a lid on prices and extending the crisis. If this happens, coal industry wages could spiral downward as workers settle for lower pay over unemployment.

"Although many mines have been idled or closed, the effect on markets has been more than offset by expanding production from lower cost producers, which effectively impeded the market from finding its way back to balance," IEA said.

IEA sees little opportunity to boost the U.S. coal industry through exports. It forecasts the three-year decline in U.S. coal exports will continue as consumption in China declines, shipments from Mozambique crowd out American coal in Brazil and Europe, and Colombia wields a price advantage in the shrinking European market.

U.S. coal exports fell 23 percent in 2015 and had fallen another 32 percent through the first six months of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Beyond the near term, global coal demand will grow by just 0.2 percent a year through 2040, as rising demand in India and Southeast Asia offsets falling consumption in the United States, the European Union and China.

There is one important caveat: The IEA's "New Policies Scenario" assumes climate change initiatives advanced by Obama will be implemented. That includes the Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from power plants, which Trump has said he would restrict.

It remains to be seen how deeply Trump will cut greenhouse gas regulations that the United States is currently using to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The deal, reached last year, commits 190 countries to reducing the impact of climate change by preventing global temperatures from rising above a certain level.