The foundation of Trump’s energy policy rests on fossil fuels; oil from pipelines, natural gas from fracking, and coal. Trump is a strong believer in clean coal technology and boasted that he would lift restrictions on the technology.
But while Trump has targeted environmental protections that could impact coal production, the narrative that the U.S. Government has, in the past, been completely against coal isn’t quite right. Instead, the government has spent a lot of money in an effort to make clean coal work, and for good reason: Thousands of American jobs and hundreds of communities depend on the coal industry to survive. But coal’s greatest enemy isn’t the EPA: It’s the free market and not even coal barons think Trump can bring coal jobs back.
The Vague Costs Of Coal
For some Americans, their livelihoods depend on coal. 174,000 Americans make a living off coal, whether they mine it, transport it, or burn it for power. Kentucky and West Virginia, in particular, are faced with a tough problem, as the $24 per hour coal mining pays, on average, is a living wage for a family of four with one working adult. The death of coal, for these Americans, likely means the death of their communities and a transition to jobs with far less robust earning potential. When they can even find those.
Conversely, though, coal is an ecological disaster. Burning it not only creates air pollution,but also other contaminants like mercury, and leaves behind a potentially toxic ash that needs to be either disposed of or recycled. Reversing regulations supposedly restricting coal can’t help the fuel’s public relations problem.
Clean coal technology is designed to address the pollution issue by capturing the various greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, to keep them out of the atmosphere. The theory is that if you can clean up coal’s reputation, you can save the jobs, and perhaps even grow the industry again.
The problem with that scenario is that, while there are supposed to be three viable ways to trap those emissions — freeing them before the coal is burned, burning the coal in a high-oxygen environment, or capturing them after the coal burns — clean coal technology has had trouble transitioning from academic theory to the real world. The issue, as clean coal technology expert Dr. Rajender Gupta of the University of Alberta explains to Uproxx, is scale:
“There’s lots of carbon capture technologies that can reduce emissions, but they’re expensive,” Gupta told us. “They can come down to lower prices if they’re adapted at large scale. There are more coming up, as well, that can capture at a much cheaper price. Cost is the important thing, and cost can only be reduced if it’s done more frequently.”