by megan caldwell

The coal industry is no stranger to tough times, and 2020 was no exception. President Donald Trump promised to “put our miners back to work” soon after his inauguration in 2017, but many within the industry have been left wondering what happened to that promise.

Since Trump took office, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, an additional 73 power plants have announced their intention to close additional coal-burning units this decade, and approximately 5,300 coal mining jobs have been eliminated nationwide. The New York Times reported in October that this is the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity in any single presidential term, and that the expected decline by end of 2020 was the largest four-year drop in production since at least 1932. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 certainly did not help. Decreased energy demands due to lockdowns and diminished economic activity, as well as the high price of coal, put additional pressure on an industry already facing many challenges.

In December, Trump, in one last push to aid the industry, declined to tighten U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) soot pollution standard. That standard regulates the number of tiny industrial particles known as PM 2.5 that are permitted to be in a cubic meter of industrial soot emissions. Those emissions can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing asthma, heart attacks and other health conditions.

The EPA is required by law to review the latest science and update the soot standard every five years. The current standard was set at 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In a draft report prepared in 2019, EPA scientists recommended lowering the standard to somewhere between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter based on a finding that such a reduction could save between 9,000 and 34,600 lives every year. In spite of this report, the EPA announced on December 7 that the agency was declining to alter the existing standard and that the 12-microgram level will remain in place for the next five years.

Some scientists and environmental groups have expressed concern with this decision in light of a study published in April 2020 suggesting that there is a link between long-term exposure to soot pollution and COVID-19 mortality. That study found that a person living for decades in an area with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15% more likely to die after contracting COVID-19, compared to someone in an area with one unit less of this type of pollution. Meanwhile, representatives within the coal industry have praised the decision.

With the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden nearing, there may be more obstacles on the horizon for the coal sector under a leader who has made climate high on his priorities list.  On the soot standard specifically, the incoming Biden administration is permitted to review and tighten the standard sooner than the next five-year mark, and the newly appointed EPA administrator under Biden may do just that.

Biden is also expected to attempt to reinstate and reverse course on many of the hundreds of environmental protections rolled back on Trump’s watch that impact the coal industry. These include EPA regulations such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Coal Ash Rule, both of which limit pollution emitted by coal plants. Biden will be able to eliminate certain changes using executive orders, but it will be a challenge for Biden to pass laws in the event there remains a Republican-controlled Senate.

More broadly, Biden’s goals for an energy transition threaten to further upend the coal industry. The president-elect has pledged to launch a $1.7 trillion “clean energy revolution” and has vowed to invest $400 billion into clean energy. He has voiced his commitment to shift the U.S. power sector to renewable sources, planning to rejoin the Paris agreement and work to put the U.S. energy sector on a path to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2035. Transitioning toward that target could mean a further loss of coal jobs. Some in the coal sector are hopeful that Biden will collaborate with coal unions and groups to develop and implement strategies to address the job loss and ensure coal communities do not suffer further. None of this eases worried minds in the coal sector, though, as there is only thing that is for certain in these uncertain times: change — a lot of it.

Megan Caldwell is a partner with Husch Blackwell. She can be reached at