Coal Is Losing Appalachian Stronghold as Trump Fights Back
atural gas already won the battle with coal on America’s Atlantic coast. Now it’s about to move west and take Ohio — and President Donald Trump’s new rollback of environmental regulations won’t stop the rout.
At least six gas-fired plants are planned in the Ohio River Valley over the next four years. That’s enough to supply more than 4 million homes, and topple coal as the state’s main source of electricity.
Because gas is cleaner, its displacement of coal was cheered by the Obama administration. Still, it was the economics of shale drilling, not the government’s environmental rules, that drove the change. Gas prices have fallen almost 80 percent since mid-2008 as production surged across the country.
That’s what makes it so hard for Trump to bring back mining jobs in states like Ohio where the coal vote helped put him in the White House. It’s one thing to scrap his predecessor’s green agenda, as Trump did today with an executive order that cancels various carbon-cutting policies. Taking on the market is another matter.
“Ohio coal is already feeling the pressure,” said John Bartlett, who helps manage about $2.5 billion of energy and utility stocks at W.H. Reaves & Co. Inc. in Jersey City. “It’s going to be more and more intense as the decade wears on.”
Bartlett remembers when “all the coal in the world went up and down the Ohio River. You used to fly over it in the old days and see tons of barges.”
Last year, coal’s share of power generation in the state fell to about 58 percent, from 86 percent in 2006. Bartlett estimates that by 2021, gas-fired stations in Ohio will be able to produce 20.4 gigawatts — almost double their current capacity — while coal will hold steady at 15.4 gigawatts.
Competition from gas was one reason that AES Corp.’s Dayton Power & Light announced in November it will shut two coal plants in Adams County on the Ohio River. With a combined capacity of 3,000 megawatts, they’ve operated for 40 years and employ hundreds of people.
“That got the community fired up,” said Michael Pell, chief executive of First State Bank in the nearby town of Winchester, who’s emerged as a leader of local efforts to resist the closures. He lists the likely effects: the county will lose about 30 percent of its property revenue, and potentially 70 percent of its school budget, and there are no state rules to guarantee the sites will be properly decommissioned and cleaned up.
“Not only will we lose our tax base and jobs, we may lose our water supply,” he said. There’ll be “zombie plants sitting on 5,500 acres that my grandchildren will have to look at for all eternity.” Pell said the community is hoping for some help from the Trump administration, with its emphasis on defending coal. But “we have very little political leverage, either in Ohio or nationally.”