Economy

Candidate Trump said he ‘digs coal.’ His key Cabinet appointments favor natural gas

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry smiles as he leaves Trump Tower in New York. Perry is President-elect Donald Trump’s likely choice to become energy secretary.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry smiles as he leaves Trump Tower in New York. Perry is President-elect Donald Trump’s likely choice to become energy secretary. AP

Key Cabinet choices by President-elect Donald Trump strongly favor natural gas, potentially undermining a campaign promise that helped Trump win big in coal country.

Trump’s selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be energy secretary is certain to boost fossil fuels generally.

All oppose President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by a third by 2030, primarily by taking aim at coal-fired power plants.

But all three men have been big promoters of the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, and the resulting abundance of cheap natural gas has displaced a large volume of coal in the nation’s power sector.

Coal used to meet 50 percent of the country’s electricity needs, but during the first half of this year, natural gas supplied 36 percent of U.S. power, versus 31 percent for coal.

36 Percentage of U.S. electricity produced by natural gas, first half of 2016

31 Percentage of U.S. electricity produced by coal, first half of 2016

Trump won handily in coal-producing regions that have been hardest-hit by the transition from coal to natural gas, especially those in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

While he campaigned on a promise to scrap Obama administration rules thought to be detrimental to coal, such actions may do little to spur new employment in a sector that’s been pummeled by the very economic forces Pruitt, Tillerson and Perry have embraced.

Trump’s actions may do little to spur new employment in a sector that’s been pummeled by the very economic forces Pruitt, Tillerson and Perry have embraced.

Pruitt, one of the first state attorneys general to take the Obama administration to court over the Clean Power Plan, testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee earlier this year that natural gas had done more to cut carbon emissions than any federal regulation.

“As natural gas becomes increasingly affordable,” Pruitt told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Environment Subcommittee in May, “it becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to coal.”

Oklahoma, he said, produces 7.4 percent of the country’s natural gas, with opportunity for additional shifts away from coal.

“And because coal still accounts for 34 percent of power generation,” he said, “we will continue to see market-driven emissions reductions for years to come.”

Because coal still accounts for 34 percent of power generation, we will continue to see market-driven emissions reductions for years to come.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

In a speech to the World Gas Conference in Paris in June 2015, Tillerson sounded a similar note.

“Because natural gas emits up to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when used for power generation,” he said, “natural gas from shale has been instrumental in reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to levels not seen since the 1990s.”

Tillerson projected that global demand for natural gas would rise by 65 percent from 2010 to 2040, diminishing the importance of coal worldwide.

“In fact, around the year 2025,” he said, “we expect natural gas to overtake coal as the second most significant contributor behind oil in meeting global energy needs.”

In fact, around the year 2025, we expect natural gas to overtake coal as the second most significant contributor behind oil in meeting global energy needs.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

Perry, who was governor of Texas from 2001 to 2015, oversaw a massive shift from coal to natural gas that’s still occurring. In 2010, the two fossil fuels generated about an equal amount of the state’s electricity.

By 2015, natural gas fueled 48 percent of Texas power, while coal had slipped to 28 percent, according to the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas.

Since Texas is the nation’s No. 1 producer of natural gas, supplying 29 percent of the U.S. market, there’s room for growth. Texas remains the largest U.S. consumer of coal.

However, Texas power plants currently burn coal that’s overwhelmingly transported to the state by rail from mines in Wyoming.

In a June 2014 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Perry bragged that Texas alone had more installed wind power capacity than all but five countries.

An analysis prepared in May for the Texas Clean Energy Coalition projected that if natural gas prices remained low, Texas could witness 60 percent of its remaining coal-fired power generating capacity retired by 2022.

Natural gas isn’t the only fuel Texas has in abundance. The state has the country’s No. 1 wind power potential, and more electricity in Texas – 11.7 percent – now comes from wind than nuclear.

In a June 2014 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Perry bragged that Texas alone had more installed wind power capacity than all but five countries.

“Today, the nation’s leading developer of wind energy is not one of those progressive states on the East Coast or the West Coast,” Perry said, “the No. 1 wind energy producing state in the nation is along the Gulf Coast. It’s in Texas.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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