What A Biden Versus Trump Presidency Could Mean For Coal

Oct 30, 2020

Caitlin McCoy, staff attorney at Harvard Law School's environmental and energy law program.
Credit Caitlin McCoy

Biden's stance on fracking has been all over the news; that the Democratic presidential candidate would prohibit the practice on federal land, while allowing current permits to continue. The presidential election is also expected to impact U.S. coal markets - either way it breaks.

Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim spoke with Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at Harvard Law School's environmental and energy law program, about what that might look like.

Caitlyn McCoy: It's almost hard to describe what the potential impact of a Biden administration is without the contrast, I think of a potential Trump administration, because I think... I don't want to sound insensitive, because I know that people's jobs and livelihoods are at stake. And it's really easy for people who don't live in communities that currently depend on coal mining, to just say, "for the sake of climate, we have to stop using coal." And that said, the writing is on the wall and it has been for a while now.

"I think that when we look closely at President Trump's record, especially on coal mining, we don't really see him delivering on proposals that actively support mining and help revive demand for coal."

And the market forces that we've seen at play under the Trump administration have been really powerful despite what the Trump administration has done to try to preserve demand for coal. So, I really think the big difference in a potential Biden administration and a second term Trump administration comes in this, in this sort of sense that, I think Trump would essentially leave the industry to just kind of wither on its own, which is somewhat what he's done over the last four years. Yes, there have been actions that have lowered compliance costs and loosened requirements a little bit. But there hasn't really been any big action by the Trump administration to revive demand for coal or to actively support coal mining. And so I think really, the big difference is that a Biden administration will seek to, as Biden has said, accelerate the transition away from coal.

But I think this sort of complimentary piece of that is: I think a potential Biden administration will also be creating programs to retrain workers in industry and work to provide for an economic transition. And I don't think workers can rely on the Trump administration, if there is a second term, to provide programs like that, I think the industry will just be left to the mercy of the markets and we'll hear President Trump doggedly repeating the same lines, you know, that he's saved coal. But the reality on the ground is very different. And I think people have experienced that over the last four years.

Cooper McKim: So there are some specific policies as well, that could go beyond the secular decline that you're talking about with a Biden presidency that would accelerate it. Climate related proposals, other promises related to renewables... could you talk a little bit about those?

McCoy: A potential Biden administration would theoretically enact the plans that Vice President Biden has released and those plans call for a carbon-free electricity system by 2035. And so yes, that certainly would be the type of plan that would increase pressure on utilities to phase out coal for energy generation here in the United States. And that I think, would be a big part of changing demand for coal in this country.

On Biden's Plan For Carbon-Free Electricity: "That certainly would be the type of plan that would increase pressure on utilities to phase out coal for energy generation here in the United States."

McKim: Anything else to mention regarding coal or energy before we sign off here?

McCoy: Well, I would say that President Trump has worked to make energy this Keystone issue, you know, as part of his first campaign and his first term, energy was this really key issue that he kept coming back to, but I think that when we look closely at President Trump's record, especially on coal mining, we don't really see him delivering on proposals that actively support mining and help revive the demand for coal. He's loosened some requirements. But I think if you take a close look beyond some of the statements that he makes, and look at whether he's really made a difference for the industry, we've seen more closure of coal capacity in the United States during President Trump's first term, then under Obama's second term. And the reality is it's just hard to outrun the market forces.

McKim: That was Harvard's Caitlin McCoy and the elections potential impacts on coal production. Thank you so much for joining me.

McCoy: Thank you so much for having me.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.