Trump’s Ineffective End to the “War on Coal”

By Amber Penn-Roco

On March 28, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” designed to roll back President Obama’s climate change policies and to revive the coal industry.  Upon signing the Executive Order, President Trump remarked that he was “putting an end to the war on coal,” telling coal miners: “You’re going back to work.”  The next day, the Trump Administration formally lifted a coal-leasing moratorium on federal lands. 

Critics immediately expressed doubt as to whether President Trump’s Executive Order would be able to stop the coal industry’s decline, pointing out that the coal industry’s biggest problem is not regulation, but the rise of natural gas. 

A recent report from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs casts further doubt on effectiveness of the Executive Order, asking: “Can Coal Make a Comeback?”  The report examines the cause of coal industry’s collapse and the “prospects for a recovery of US coal production and employment by modeling the impact of President Trump’s executive order and assessing the global coal market outlook.”

The report supported critics’ assertions that natural gas, rather than regulation, was the primary reason for the decline in the coal market.  The report finds: “Increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic US coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand is responsible for 26 percent, and the growth in renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent.”  Further, the report finds that “environmental regulations have played a role in the switch from coal to natural gas and renewables in US electricity supply by accelerating coal plant retirements, but were a significantly smaller factor than recent natural gas and renewable energy cost reductions.” 

The report also indicates that international factors further contributed to the decline in coal, finding: “Changes in the global coal market have played a far greater role in the collapse of the US coal industry than is generally understood . . . More than half of the decline in US coal company revenue between 2011 and 2015 was due to international factors.”

The report scrutinizes the effectiveness of the Executive Order, finding that “[i]mplementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in US coal consumption, but only if natural gas prices increase going forward. If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.” 

Ultimately, the report concludes, “President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities.”  The report states that considering the “domestic and international market outlook, we believe it is highly unlikely US coal mining employment will return to pre-2015 levels, let alone the industry’s historical highs."

Coal is a contentious issue in Indian Country.  On one hand, many tribes own land that has large coal reserves.  Coal can provide an economically depressed tribe a source of income.  Accordingly, many tribes support the development of natural resources on their lands.  However, many tribes are also resistant to coal mining, as it can result in the destruction and desecration of the natural environment and tribal sacred places. 

In particular, many tribes, and individual tribal members, oppose the resulting environmental impact of coal burning, which increases the emission of greenhouse gases, negatively impacting climate change.  Climate change has, historically, had a disparate impact on indigenous peoples.  As recognized by the United Nations, “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, owing to their dependence upon, and close relationship with the environment and its resources.”  Indeed, “Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.”

Accordingly, President Trump’s ineffective Executive Order will have a mixed impact on tribes.  Tribes that allow coal mining may suffer economically.  Though, no more than they would’ve suffered already under the declining coal market.  However, from an environmental perspective, the decline of the coal industry is a favorable result, as it will decrease emissions.  In all, as the President’s pro-coal Executive Order demonstrates, the issue is more nuanced that it might first appear, with Tribes having interests on both sides.

Amber V. Penn-Roco is an associate attorney at Galanda Broadman, PLLC.  Amber is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.  Amber’s practice focuses on tribal sovereignty issues, including complex land and environmental issues, and economic development matters.  Amber can be reached at (206) 713-0040 and