Coal's big US stronghold is losing steam, even as Trump aims for a revival

Consol Energy CFO on coal vs. natural gas

The U.S. Mountain States are moving away from coal, even as President-elect Donald Trump vows to revive the embattled industry.

Western states — a stronghold for coal consumption — are increasingly using natural gas and renewable energy for their electricity. The switch puts pressure on miners in Wyoming, the country's biggest coal-producing state, and tilts the playing field against Trump's plans.

The president-elect's promise to put miners back to work was already a tall order — the International Energy Agency says the embattled U.S. industry must close more mines in the coming years before it can return to health. Trump also wants to increase natural gas production, but energy analysts say that would eat into coal's market share even more than it already has.

While Wyoming miners have faced layoffs recently, the state has been something of a bulwark. Its vast deposits of easily accessible, low-sulfur coal have kept the mountain region running on the fossil fuel. Nearly half of the region's power generation in 2015 was coal-fired, while the national average was 33 percent, according to analysis by the Energy Information Administration.

But even that swath of the United States is not immune to the market forces that have chipped away at coal. A decade ago, coal provided 63 percent of its power.

On the one hand, Wyoming has closed fewer coal-fired plants than other states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, because its facilities are relatively new and more efficient. New air-quality regulations have quickened the retirement of old and inefficient plants in parts of the United States.

But new power-generation in the mountain region is being provided by natural gas, solar and wind as some states commit to renewable energy and the regulatory outlook for coal remains unclear, said Robert Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.

"Between the Colorado Renewables Portfolio Standard and growth being accommodated by renewables and natural gas, there's just no reason to build any coal [capacity]. But there's also no reason to retire it," he said.

Consol Energy CFO on coal vs. natural gas

How Wyoming won the coal market

Americans tend to think of West Virginia and Kentucky as coal country, but Wyoming alone produced 40 percent of the country's coal production in 2014. That year, the entire Appalachian region mined 27 percent of U.S. coal.

Coal mining in Wyoming increased during the 1970s oil crisis, when leaders became preoccupied with U.S. energy independence. Deregulation in 1980 led to lower rail rates, making it cheaper to ship Wyoming's coal around the country.

Most of the state's production comes from the northeastern Powder River Basin, where cleaner-burning, low-sulfur coal lies close to the surface, making it much cheaper and easier to extract than coal taken from deep mines elsewhere.

"People have described the deposits as freakish," Godby said.

Wyoming's mines feed a number of nearby plants that generate far more electricity than Wyoming can use. The state sends two-thirds of its electricity generation through the grid to nearby states.

What it doesn't burn, Wyoming ships near and far; in 2015, 32 states imported the state's coal. Powder River Basin coal trades at about $10 per short ton, compared with about $45 for Central Appalachia coal, so it can be cheaper than Kentucky and West Virginia coal even after transportation costs.

Stricter regulations on sulfur dioxide emissions in 1990 prompted plant operators to use Powder River Basin coal. Until recently, operators didn't have to install emissions-control technology — and dedicate part of the plant's output to power it — because Powder River Basin coal burns more cleanly.

Wyoming's advantage wanes

But things are changing. Wyoming coal production peaked in 2008 at 447.6 million tons, declining to 375.8 million tons in 2015 amid an overabundance of coal, stagnant electricity demand, cheaper natural gas prices, falling renewable energy costs and new environmental regulations.

Trump's vow to abandon President Barack Obama's attempt to further regulate greenhouse gas emissions from plants under the Clean Power Plan could provide some relief. If the plan is enforced, the EIA projects the United States will retire 32 more gigawatts of coal-fired capacity by 2030 than it otherwise would have.

Markets watchers are also anticipating higher economic growth as Trump and congressional Republicans pursue tax reform and infrastructure spending, but Godby notes that electricity use grows at a slower pace than GDP. The shift to energy efficient products like LED lightbulbs and flat screen TVs that coincided with the economic recovery since 2009 has also capped electricity demand growth, he said.

Other advantages for Wyoming are diminishing as well.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule forced more coal-fired plants — even those burning Wyoming coal — to invest in technology to mitigate emissions. That evens out the playing field to some degree and makes it cheaper for some plants to use higher-sulfur coal from other states, particularly Illinois.

Automation in underground mines is making Illinois Basin coal more competitive with Wyoming coal, Godby said.

But the economics of Powder River Basin mining are so attractive that Wyoming will be able to weather new carbon-cutting initiatives better than other producing regions, he added.

"I always say to people that when the last coal train leaves the station, it'll be in Wyoming most likely," he said.