Opinion: Trump can’t make both coal and fracking great again

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump
Opinion by Liam DenningBloomberg

In Donald Trump’s quest to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, superlatives tend to outweigh nuance. Anyone in the coal business taking heart from the Republican presidential candidate’s speech on energy should keep that in mind.

Trump told his audience in North Dakota on Thursday that he will, in broad terms, roll back the Obama administration’s environmental measures and encourage more production of domestic sources of energy, including oil, coal and natural gas. He also promised to “save the coal industry” (which, you may have noticed, is struggling).

And here is where the details, possibly obscured by the odd oratorical flourish (“We’re loaded”), actually start to matter.

In Trump’s telling, the coal industry has been crushed by regulations aimed at curtailing mining and cutting emissions from burning it. And it’s true that, for example, investing in the equipment needed to satisfy tighter guidelines such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards does make coal less economical to its biggest customers, electricity generators, and has led to plants being closed.

But the bigger threat is more prosaic: abundant natural gas from the shale boom.

The trend of gas taking market share from coal began in earnest in 2009 — which just happens to be when the cost of gas to produce electricity collapsed.

For this one, assume the gas-fired plant converts heat to power at 45 percent efficiency — or, said another way, has to burn about 7.6 million British thermal units of gas to produce 1 megawatt-hour of electricity. For the coal plant, with 35 percent efficiency, the fuel requirement is about 9.75 million BTUs. Each ton of Appalachian coal contains 24 million BTUs. Now, put it all together:

So while rolling back some environmental standards on coal-fired plants would likely help keep some more of them open, encouraging more fracking simultaneously would mean more cheap gas to keep taking away coal’s market share. That’s just competition.

Now, it is possible that a Trump administration might also do its bit to encourage the construction of more plants to export liquefied natural gas, which would tend to push prices up, helping the miners. But as recent turmoil at Cheniere Energy shows, the global LNG market is glutted already. Moreover, by encouraging more fracking of shale, Trump’s policy would also tend to raise oil production, having the side effect of depressing global oil prices, which are in turn linked to LNG prices, meaning…

Yeah, yeah; I get it. You’ve stopped reading already.