The Republican National Convention paid a lot of lip service to US coal in general, and the coal state of West Virginia in particular, but it seems that words are all the industry can expect from a Donald Trump administration. The Republican candidate for President already has oil-and-gas fan Kevin Cramer (R – North Dakota) on his energy advisory team, and last week he was rumored to be eyeballing fracking mogul Harold Hamm for Energy Secretary.
Cramer dug the knife in a little deeper in an interview last week. He dropped more than a few hints last week that a Trump administration will give free rein to the natural gas marketplace, and leave coal twisting in the wind.
The Appalachian coal state of West Virginia has emerged as a hotspot for Republican votes, and RNC 2016 planners rewarded its delegates with juicy front-row seating and a prime-time speaking slot for West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito.
Capito nailed both President Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for killing off coal jobs in West Virginia. Industry analysts, though, widely agree that the real culprit behind the loss of coal jobs is the shale gas fracking boom, which has followed a decades-long trend toward mechanization in the coal industry.
Clinton in particular took a lot of heat:
The only thing we can trust Hillary to do is to double down on the same failed Obama policies that are hurting Americans that I just described.
We know she will double down on an economic agenda that’s led to the lowest workforce participation in decades.
We know that she will double down on the war on coal.
Capito assured Republican voters — and particularly, West Virginian voters — that Trump would come to the rescue:
We must carry this momentum to elect Donald Trump who speaks directly to Americans who have been devastated by the Obama administration. West Virginians know he understands their problems, shares their concerns and by golly is going to do things much differently.
President Obama had nothing to do with that, and a President Clinton would not be able to close the loophole without legislative action from Congress, but whatever.
…But Trump Hearts Fracking More
Regardless of the coal love fest at RNC 2016, the Hamm rumor should put the industry on notice that it’s going to have to shout louder if it wants to get heard.
Hamm isn’t fully on board yet — after all, that’s just a rumor — but Cramer is on board, and his fracking-friendly interview last week in Midwestern Energy News pounded twenty different nails into the coal coffin.
Cramer began by linking oil and gas development to national security and job creation, while neglecting to mention coal.
That one error of omission would be inconsequential except that he made another one right after that. When the conversation turned to tax breaks, he mentioned a drilling cost deduction without touching on a similar carve-out for coal.
It all went downhill once the interview began to dig a little deeper into favoritism in federal energy policy. Republican stakeholders routinely accuse the Obama Administration of picking “energy winners and losers” with policies favorable to wind and solar. Cramer, though, seems to think that the framework applies equally to competition between coal and the oil-and-gas sector:
…So coal versus natural gas is a natural market force. I don’t think it would be appropriate to save coal at the expense of the consumer. If natural gas as a competing fuel is more economically feasible, then that’s to the benefit of the market.
Cramer allows that some coal consumers can take advantage of long-term contracts to stabilize costs, while natural gas is more responsive to the global commodity market. However, he still comes down on the side of natural gas:
…I’m not advocating for picking a winner or loser in the coal versus gas fight either. I’m looking for a level playing field…
Now the other advantage to gas is gas plants are pretty easy to build. They’re pretty inexpensive to build. And it’s a highly dispatchable form of baseload electricity. So, it’s got an advantage. I think that’s okay.
Although Cramer has a reputation as a climate change denier, he also seems to accept the fact that carbon regulation is inevitable. In that context, he foresees that coal will simply not be able to compete with natural gas in the open market:
…if gas [plays a growing role] — whether you consider it a clean fuel or a transition fuel or whatever the case might be — that’s just all the more reason not to have to drive coal out of business with regulation. But if the market does that, so be it.
Image via US Department of Energy.