At COP 23 this month, the Trump Administration continued its efforts to "end the war on coal" by hosting a panel focused on using clean coal to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. The panel sparked an organized protest from activists, with dozens singing an anti-coal song to the tune of "God Bless the U.S.A."
The events at COP 23 demonstrated the continued controversy surrounding President Trump's goal of ending the war on coal, but defining what exactly caused this "war" is more complex than just Obama-era environmental policies.
The term "war on coal" was originally coined by the coal industry and its supporters in response to some of the Obama Administration's environmental policies – many of which were aimed at helping the U.S. meet its goals from COP 21's Paris Agreement. However, experts say this "war" was not waged by any given administration, but instead was an effect of societal forces.
According to Donald Paul, Executive Director of the USC Energy Institute, if there was ever a war on coal, it was waged by simple economics.
"The major factor that affected the coal industry was market forces and the rise of fracking, primarily natural gas," Paul said. "Natural gas became very cheap and became the preferred fuel. It was really cheap natural gas that became the major factor that affected coal under the Obama Administration," he said.
The invention of fracking technologies caused U.S. production of oil to soar and imports of expensive foreign oil to plummet, therefore slashing prices for consumers and making coal energy much less competitive in the U.S. markets. Similarly, new solar, wind and energy storage technologies drove national competition up and prices for non-coal energy down. Even today, with Obama-era subsidies for renewables or natural gas on the chopping block, coal will still fail to be the cheapest energy source in the U.S. within a few years. Furthermore, due to increased mechanization in coal mining and production, it also no longer creates the most American jobs in the energy industry.
However, it's more than just these market forces that have crowded out coal – it's also the increased focus on the societal cost of coal. Kate Svyatets, a professor in USC's Environmental Studies program who teaches classes focused on environmental economics, said that coal mining can damage ecosystems, and can cause negative health effects such as asthma, hormonal abnormalities and diabetes when the coal is burned for energy. Svyatets noted that these effects are even worse for the industry's miners, who can face health issues including asthma, lung disease and cancer.
To Svyatets, the so-called war on coal has never been about regulations: "There is no war on coal, in my mind. It's just a war on pollution and coal happens to be a big disruptive industry disrupting ecosystems and human health."
Environmental and economic policy expert Antonio Bento agrees.
"It's important to realize there is no war on coal," he said. "It goes back to very simple economics: when individuals and firms make decisions, they only consider private costs and benefits for their business and forget the impact that they create on society."
Those impacts on society, Bento explained, are what economists call externalized costs. They are the indirect consequences from burning fossil fuels – like the health care costs for people with lung disease from coal-induced air pollution. As society has begun to acknowledge these costs, support for coal has waned.
Yet even if Americans' support for rolling back regulations on coal outweighs the long-term externalized cost implications, it's still highly unlikely that the Trump Administration can bring coal back from the brink.
"[The Trump Administration] is just basically stalling the inevitable," Paul explained.
"These [rollbacks and repeals] help a little bit but it's not really going to revive the coal industry to its previous height ten years ago or so." Svyatets said.
However, rollbacks could make it harder for groups to file lawsuits against coal companies. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign – aimed at pushing American towards clean energy – focuses on shutting down coal plants through lawsuits claiming violations of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Though the Sierra Club remains optimistic about reaching their goal, Svyatets wondered if the latest rollbacks may require a shift in tactics for the campaign's leaders.
"NGOs will now have less legal grounds to sue because these companies [won't be] violating much, because there [will be] no regulation," Svyatets said.
But even with these rollbacks, the combination of market forces and other factors still pose a threat to coal.
"Coal will be phased out," Svyatets said. "We need to decide how we can help people put food on the table doing something else."