Energy companies still plan to shift away from coal
Pennsylvania's coal industry praised the first step by President Donald Trump toward killing the Obama administration's signature anti-global warming regulation, even as energy companies said the move isn't expected to change plans on scaling back on coal-generated power.
Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that mandates a review of the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants. The order aligns with Trump's campaign promise to bring back coal industry jobs.
But several energy companies said the order won't stop plans already in motion to cease coal operations in the region as their industry moves toward generating power with natural gas.
FirstEnergy Corp. spokeswoman Jennifer Young said her company likely will either sell or close the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant near Shippingport as it moves to exit the competitive generation market by mid-2018. The plant employs about 300 people.
She added the decision is driven by many factors — the most significant being a decline in market prices.
“That's driven quite a bit by natural gas,” Young said.
On March 20, Dayton Power & Light announced it would shut down two coal-fired plants in southern Ohio by June 2018 for economic reasons. The company said its plans remain despite Trump's executive order.
The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance called the Clean Power Plan an “over-reaching regulation” that would “destroy economies in coal communities across Pennsylvania and threatened energy independence.” Alliance Executive Director Rachel Gleason said in a written statement that Pennsylvania's coal industry is responsible for more than 30,000 jobs and contributes more than $2 billion to the state's labor economy each year.
Bloomberg News in February reported on several positive developments for the nation's long-struggling coal industry: a big boost in coal prices, Republicans vote to kill a rule aimed at protecting streams from the effects of coal mining, and Lexington, Ky.-based Ramaco Resources holding the first U.S. coal initial public offering in two years.
But those changes came after six major coal producers went bankrupt in the past 10 years, some more than once. Many economists have warned that automation and competition from natural gas — not federal regulations — are largely to blame for the industry's demise.
Charles McCollester, retired director of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Labor Relations, recently told the Tribune-Review that coal's decline is likely destined to continue and is intrinsically linked to the glut of cheap natural gas from the fracking boom.
That boom has led to major investment in the region. Tenaska Westmoreland Generating Station, a natural gas-fired power plant near Smithton, should come online by late next year. Construction at the Shell ethane cracker facility in Beaver County should finish by 2021-22.
Like many industries, mining has tapped technologies to reduce the need for manpower, McCollester said.
“It's a hell of a lot easier to shut it down than it is to bring it back,” McCollester said. “And things coming out of (Carnegie Mellon University), like artificial intelligence and robotics, make it a lot more difficult to bring back jobs. ... Today, with 500 workers you can run a mill that used to require nearly 10,000.”
John Stilley, who owns Butler-based Amerikohl Mining Inc., said many of his company's workers moved from Amerikohl's coal-mining operations to its limestone quarries as regulations, especially during Obama's time in office, forced the company to change. Amerikohl also maintains a natural gas outfit called Patriot Exploration.
Stilley said he hopes deregulation under Trump can slow — if not stop — coal job losses.
“We've got 100-plus real hard-working men and women just in our company,” he said. “They have every right in the world to be able to go to work and have a decent job and put their kids through school.”
A United Mine Workers spokesman declined to comment.
Michael Walton and Dillon Carr are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.