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The Energy 202: Coal production is actually up under Trump. Should he get credit?

with Paulina Firozi


President Trump made one big promise to voters when it came to energy policy: He would bring back coal-mining jobs and save the coal industry by lifting the regulatory burden foisted on it by the Obama administration.

Energy and environmental policy analysts countered that it was not bureaucrats, but coal’s competitors, that were driving it out of business. The boom in electricity generated by cheap natural gas and renewable sources over the past decade was undermining old and cost-intensive coal-fired power plants.

But new numbers published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that monitors energy trends, shows that coal production has actually grown since Trump became commander-in-chief.

During the first nine months of 2017 — coinciding more or less with Trump’s time in office — coal production was 12 percent higher than during the same period in 2016, according EIA data published Wednesday.

Year over year, it has jumped from an estimated 529 million tons to 591 million tons — a gain of 62 million tons.

Why is coal production up if the fuel is supposed to be on its way out? Should we give credit to Trump for that bump?

The short answer to that second question is no, not really.

The long answer to the first, energy analysts say, is that economic factors at home and abroad — and all largely beyond Trump's control — play a bigger role in explaining that year-over-year increase than the changing of the presidential guard. Potentially to the president's surprise, China even helped out a bit with the increase.

Bouncing back from bankruptcy: In 2015 and early 2016, Peabody Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, along with several other smaller companies, filed for bankruptcy. Together, those three accounted for more than 40 percent of U.S. coal production, according to Chiza Vitta, an energy analyst at Standard & Poor’s.

“This is a very concentrated industry,” Vitta said.

Their absence depressed coal production for 2016, priming it to come back up this year when by April all three belly-up firms emerged restructured from bankruptcy to operate normally again — making for what Vitta called a “one-time event" that increased coal production.

A blip in the boom of cheap natural gas: The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in the United States over the past decade has flooded the market with cheap gas and made coal less economically viable. Gas prices got “very low” in 2016, said Ethan Zindler of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, before creeping back up this year.

“So this has allowed coal to stage what I'd consider a mini-comeback for this calendar year,” Zindler said in an email.

That surge in natural gas, solar and wind energy happened while electricity demand plateaued because of improvements in energy efficiency. That makes the U.S. electricity market a bit of a zero-sum game; when renewables gain market share, coal is often the loser.

“Demand being flat is critical,” said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Beyond Coal campaign at the Sierra Club, which has campaigned to close U.S. coal plants. On Wednesday, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups announced an expanded anti-coal effort after a $64 million contribution from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“The key data point is not production, but consumption in the electricity sector," Nilles added.

A perfect storm of market forces in Australia and China: In April of this year, when Cyclone Debbie knocked out railways in Australia that deliver coal to international markets, China lost a key source of what's called metallurgical coal.

“The mines were okay, but their transportation was compromised,” Vitta said.

Used primarily for steel-making rather than for generating power, metallurgical coal supplied by the United States made up for that short-term shortfall for China’s steel sector.

“It was temporary, and the U.S. has always been a swing supplier,” Nilles said. The United States is a strong exporter of this type of coal — in fact, the first new coal mine to open under Trump, in Pennsylvania, produces met coal.

With that new demand from China, U.S. coal exports jumped 62 percent from the first nine months of 2016 to the same period this year, according to EIA.

And Trump? As to the question of whether Trump's coal-friendly policies, which include the repeal of the Clean Power Plan and numerous other regulations on the industry, have given coal miners the confidence to increase production, energy experts say the  Trump effecti s anywhere from small to negligible.

"This is not due to any 'Trump bump,' " Zindler said. "Longer term, move away from coal will continue, recent policy pronouncements notwithstanding."

The long-term trends are hard to deny. Total coal mining capacity has shrunk from 1.37 million tons in 2008 to 1.16 million tons in 2015, according to EIA. More dramatically, coal power plants have shuttered at a rapid rate. Since 2010, 259 of the nation's 523 coal power plants have retired or announced their retirement, according to the Sierra Club.

As one recent study from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia concluded, "Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities."

"There was a Trump bump for commodities in general right after the inauguration," Vitta said. "The administration and its policies made a difference, but it's a small difference compared to the effect of the price of natural gas and the level of demand in the international market."

Residents in Santa Rosa, Calif., returned to find their homes burnt to the ground after wildfires devastated Northern California. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Myrna Perez, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

-- California is still burning: The deadly wildfires across Northern California have not let up, and state officials warned they would continue for several more days.

“We’re not out of the woods, and we’re not going to be out of the woods for a number of days to come,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re literally looking at explosive vegetation. These fires are burning actively during the day and at night.”

The fires have killed at least 23 people and scorched more than 3,500 homes and businesses throughout California’s wine country. Of the 600 people reported missing in Sonoma County, the sheriff's office said 315 have been located safe. Nearly two dozen fires have burned through at least 170,000 acres as of Wednesday, and are likely to grow, report The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Kristine Phillips and Joel Achenbach and Hermon Wong. And the current fires could merge.

More evacuations were ordered in Sonoma County on Wednesday. In some areas, deputies ran toward homes near the fires, “banging on doors, getting people out of their houses,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Misti Harris said.

The National Weather Service reports that “red flag conditions” will remain until Thursday in the North Bay Area, with dry air and winds of up to 40 mph.

-- The air quality in the Bay Area is atrocious, writes Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz. “Health officials are telling people who are particularly sensitive to pollution that maybe they should leave town for a while,” Fritz adds

Poor air conditions have brought skeptics of air-pollution science (yes, they exist) such as Steve Molloy, once a member of Trump's transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, out of the woodwork. (And read more about the EPA and air-pollution science in Tuesday's The Energy 202 here.)

What else to know

  • Here’s a dispatch from Sandhya Somashekhar, Katie Zezima and Lea Donosky for The Post on how California officials have tried to keep people alerted through the wildfire emergency.

  • Read this explanation from the New York Times on the state’s Diablo winds that are fueling the fires. And another from the Times on why this year’s fire season has been so bad.

  • The Post has compiled some of the apocalyptic images that show the destruction.

A few more images from across the fire-ravaged areas. 

NPR's Nathan Rott: 

Satellite images of smoke and fire from the NOAA:

Aerial views from The Los Angeles Times: 

While multiple wildfires ravage parts of Northern California, fire crews are trying to contain a wildfire in Southern California. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, in Southern California, fire crews made progress on Wednesday on the Canyon Fire 2 that burned 8,000 acres. It was 45 percent contained by Wednesday morning, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The report notes that officials expect the blaze to be completely contained by Saturday. 

-- The social cost of carbon, lowered:  A new 200-page proposal released by the EPA suggests that the Trump administration will lower federal government estimates of the cost of climate change. The proposal says the EPA calculated the cost of one ton of emission of carbon dioxide in 2020 as being between $1 and $6. The Post’s Chris Mooney notes that that estimate is down from the Obama administration’s 2020 estimate of $45, including an adjustment for inflation. According to a comparison by think tank Resources for the Future, that’s an 87 to 97 percent reduction.

That whopping change is in part because of the EPA calculating just for carbon within the United States instead of around the globe, Mooney writes.

Why is this such a big deal? “The ‘social cost of carbon’ is a very influential figure that helps policymakers weigh the value of moves aimed at stopping climate change. If the social cost of carbon is lower, that shrinks the estimated benefits of such moves, making it more likely that policymakers will find those benefits not worth the costs,” Mooney reports.

Warm bottom ocean water is entering the cavity under Antarctica’s Dotson ice shelf and is stirred by Earth’s rotation, causing one side of the ice shelf to melt. (Video: ESA/University of Edinburgh–N. Gourmelen/Planetary Visions)

-- More melting: Warm ocean water is cutting a channel through the underside of a floating ice shelf in West Antarctica, a new study has found, and it’s “the most vulnerable sector of the enormous ice continent,” The Post's Chris Mooney writes. The Dotson ice shelf is about 1,350 square miles in area and between 1,000 and 1,600 feet thick. But new research reveals that on the western side, the shelf is only about half of that thickness. That’s because “warm ocean water located offshore is now reaching the ice from below … warm water continually melts one part of the shelf in particular, creating the channel."

Noel Gourmelen, a researcher from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and lead author of the study, said the shelf has likely been thinning at the base for at least 25 years. The channel researchers discovered is three miles wide and 37 miles long.

Mooney continues: “The new study calculates that as a result of this highly uneven melting, the Dotson ice shelf could be melted all the way through in 40 years, rather than 170 years, which would be the time it would take if the melt were occurring evenly. And it speculates that as the thinning continues, the shelf may not go quietly or steadily any longer — something dramatic could occur, such as a breakup.”

-- A record hurricane season: You’ve heard it before and will hear it again. This year’s hurricane season was record-breaking. And there’s still about 50 days left. From Brian McNoldy and Phil Klotzbach for Capital Weather Gang: "In an average season, we would typically have seen 10 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes by Oct. 11. This year — far from average — there have been 15 named storms from Arlene in April through Ophelia in early October. Nine of those storms became hurricanes, and it just happened to be nine consecutive storms from Franklin to Nate. That’s only happened three other times that we know of."

-- New man at NOAA: As long expected, the Trump administration announced the nomination of Barry Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather, to be the next administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. From The Post's Jason Samenow: "The appointment of Myers, who is a businessman and lawyer, breaks from the recent precedent in which scientists have led the agency tasked with a large, complex, and technically demanding portfolio."

It's that last detail, about Myers's lack of scientific training, that has the weather science community's attention.

From the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.


-- Four Pinocchios for Zinke: The Post’s Nicole Lewis debunks Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s claim that “in recent years, we’ve struggled to be self-sufficient in producing low-cost, abundant and reliable energy.”

Here’s the bottom line of her fact-check: “Zinke’s claim that the U.S. has struggled to produce ‘low-cost, abundant, and reliable energy sources’ just doesn’t square with the current state of domestic energy production. Even though the United States does not produce 100 percent of its energy domestically, in 2016, domestic energy production increased to 86 percent after hitting historic lows in 2005….

The crux of Zinke’s claim is that regulation increases the cost of U.S. production, and to achieve his vision of becoming an “energy superpower,” the United States needs to cut the red tape. But instead of focusing on all the gains made by the energy industry over the past several years, Zinke obscures the reality of the domestic energy production.”

-- Trump vs. science:  The Government Accountability Office plans to investigate whether the Trump administration is protecting scientific integrity, accepting a request from a Democratic lawmaker. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) called on the GAO to look into the issue after reports that Trump officials were screening EPA grants and removing references to climate change from messaging.

“It is vital that science be impartial and free from interference, suppression or distortion,” wrote Nelson, according to The Post’s Juliet Eilperin. The probe will assess whether the administration is complying with scientific integrity policies first put into place under President Barack Obama. Eilperin notes that 24 departments and agencies were compliant by last December.

The GAO says that investigation will take place in “about four months,” when the office has the adequate staffing.

Puerto Rico Delegate González said they are still counting the fatalities following Hurricanes. (Video: Joyce Koh/Reuters)

Here's a glimpse into the scene in Puerto Rico three weeks after Maria, from The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia and Arelis R. Hernández:

Late each night, Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of a town with one of Puerto Rico’s most critical ports, drives for miles on darkened roads, easing around downed power lines and crumpled tree branches — to check his email.

At the wheel of his "guagua"— local slang for an SUV — he sometimes finds a spotty cellphone signal on a highway overpass, and there he sits, often for hours, scrolling through messages. During the day, with no working landline and no Internet access, he operates more like a 19th-century mayor of Yabucoa, orchestrating the city’s business in an information vacuum, dispatching notes scrawled on slips of paper — about everything from balky generators to misdirected water deliveries — that he hands to runners.

On the other side of the mayor’s favorite overpass spot, one of the generators at the area’s biggest hospital has collapsed from exhaustion, and the frazzled staff has stopped admitting new patients. Deeper into the island’s mountainous interior, thirsty Puerto Ricans draw drinking water from the mud-caked crevasses of roadside rock formations and bathe in creeks too small to have names. "We feel completely abandoned here,” Surillo Ruiz said with a heavy sigh."

Meanwhile, Trump sent out a series of tweets this morning that suggest Puerto Rico is to blame for its problems and that FEMA might leave the island:

A supplemental disaster funding bill for hurricanes and wildfires relief is heading to the floor on Oct. 12. (Video: Reuters)

Here's what else you need to know about Puerto Rico: 

  • In a Wednesday release, the EPA said there are reports that people there are scrambling to get drinking water, and trying to get water from wells at toxic Superfund sites.

  • Just over 64 percent of water customers have service, according to the Puerto Rican government.

  • House lawmakers are set to vote Thursday on a $36.5 billion aid package, writes our colleague Mike DeBonis, which will in part help avert a cash crisis for the territory. A draft of the bill allows nearly $5 billion in direct loans to local governments to relieve Puerto Rico’s burden.

  • Follow a new Twitter bot by The Post, @pr_recovery, which will tweet updates on progress on the island, fed from the Puerto Rican government website, and data about measures such as phone coverage and bus service.

  • Most of Puerto Rico has been in the dark for now 22 days. Here’s a stunning but troubling visual view of how Hurricane Maria thrust 3.4 million Americans into an ongoing blackout, from The Post’s Denise Lu and Chris Alcantara.

Trudeau fights to save NAFTA deal, but Trump offers little hope (Steven Mufson)

Everything that's been reported about deaths in Puerto Rico is at odds with the official count (Vox)


-- Carry on: A federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access pipeline can continue operation while the Army Corps of Engineers conducts another review of its environmental impact. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg had ruled in June that the initial federal review of the pipeline’s environmental impact was inadequate, but noted in a 28-page ruling on Wednesday that the inadequacies are “not fundamental or incurable flaws,” the Hill reported.


-- The end of an era: The Post’s Peter Holley writes that auto historians may “pinpoint 2017 as the year electric vehicles went from a promising progressive fad to an industry-wide inevitability.” Consider all that has happened this year so far. From Holley:

  • China’s flexing: In addition to setting aggressive production quotas for EVs, China plans to scrap internal combustion engines entirely as soon as 2030. By taking a lead role in the shift to plug-ins, the world’s largest auto market is forcing the rest of the international community to follow in its footsteps.
  • The debut of Tesla’s Model 3: The company’s first mass-market vehicle has ushered in an era of excitement about EVs because of the car’s slick design and starting price of around $35,000.
  • Major automakers announce plans for an “all-electric future.” General Motors finished 2016 as the world’s third-largest automaker, meaning its decision to create 20 new electric vehicles by 2023 is bound to have an impact on the global marketplace. Volvo, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Ford have also announced EV plans in recent months.

Michigan's 'largest solar park' will produce enough energy to power 11,000 homes (CNBC)


-- Following the summer of significant algal bloom in Lake Erie’s western basin, environmental and conservation groups are warning that Ohio, Michigan and Ontario are “falling far short in their efforts to reduce and eliminate the seasonable menace,” reports the Plain Dealer.

"The longer we wait to start putting algae-causing, pollution-reduction measures into practice, the worse the problems will become," Kristy Meyer, vice president of policy for the Ohio Environmental Council, told the Plain Dealer.



  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy during a hearing on the Energy Department’s missions and management priorities.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on the International Energy Agency’s Renewable Energy Market Report for 2017.
  • Bloomberg hosts its third annual Sustainable Business Summit.

Coming Up

  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on October 18.
  • Jeff Goodell discusses his book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World" on October 24 with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

President Trump on NAFTA: 'It's possible we won't be able to make a deal:'

President Trump said Oct. 11 he and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau would discuss potential changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Greenpeace activists set off fireworks at nuclear power site:

Greenpeace activists stage a protest at the Cattenom nuclear power site run by France's EDF against security and health risks posed by nuclear power. (Video: Reuters)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for posting a video of his "tone-deaf" virtual reality tour of Puerto Rico:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for posting a video of his virtual reality tour of Puerto Rico Oct. 10, which faced backlash online. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Japan's Mount Shinmoe erupts for first time in six years:

Japan’s Mount Shinmoe erupts early on Oct. 11, the first time the mountain has erupted since 2011. (Video: Japan Meteorological Agency)

From The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: "We've reached a new level of 'angry Trump:'"

Russian President Vladimir Putin got a puppy for his birthday: