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The Supreme Court limits the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. It won’t save coal plants.


The U.S. coal industry has long been in recession, and the Supreme Court recently West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency Case doesn’t change that.

The case centers on a 2015 EPA regulation known as the Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The rule never took effect, as it was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2016 and then replaced by weaker regulation under President Donald Trump, which was overturned by a federal court in 2021.

However, the 6-3 ruling on partisan lines greatly limits the EPA’s ability to enact new regulations with broad economic or political impact. That could include rules such as the Biden administration’s proposal to regulate emissions from the power sector, due later this summer.

The court’s decision is part of a multi-year, coordinated legal effort by conservatives to undermine federal regulations. But weakening climate change policies won’t be enough to reclaim the King Coal’s throne, a fact the industry has begun to acknowledge. “There is no question that U.S. thermal coal is a challenging market and is in a prolonged recession,” Glenn Kellow, chief executive of Peabody Energy, the largest U.S. coal miner, said on an earnings call last year.

The forces behind coal’s decline are likely to get stronger over the next few years, but it could still slow as the broader shock to the economy hampers its rivals. Coal may continue to lose ground, but it may not be enough to meet U.S. climate change goals.

The economy is hurting coal more than regulations

The reason coal has been steadily declining has more to do with economics than regulations. The Supreme Court cannot change the fact that much of the nation’s coal fleet is too old, too expensive, and too inefficient to operate indefinitely.

In the United States, coal provides about 21 percent of electricity, but accounts for more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, making it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

Its share of the power industry peaked in 2013 and has been shrinking since then. The labor force in the coal industry has seen an even steeper decline, falling below 40,000 by 2022, a fraction of the all-time high of a century ago.

Chart showing the jobs of coal miners in the United States throughout the 20th century.

In the United States, coal mining employs thousands of people.
Center for Global Energy Policy/Columbia University

However, coal production continued to grow for much of the 20th century, peaking in 2006 as mechanization and automation allowed fewer workers to mine more. But by 2020, U.S. coal production fell to the lowest level since 1965.

There are several factors behind this. Coal-burning power plants, many built in the 1970s and 1980s, are now on the verge of decommissioning. This year, 14.9 gigawatts of power capacity is scheduled to be retired, with 85 percent of the shutdown coming from coal-fired generators. A decade ago, the power sector was the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases. Today it is in second place – 25% versus 27% for transportation – simply because of the decline in coal.

Another big factor in coal’s demise is competition, mostly cheap natural gas fueled by hydraulic fracturing over the past decade. While natural gas has grown to supply most of the country’s energy, solar and wind are also growing rapidly. Renewable energy is now the fastest growing energy source in the United States. The sector, which includes hydropower, will account for 20% of electricity generation in 2021, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects this to grow to 24% by 2023. Wind provides 9.2% of electricity and solar provides 2.8%. These generators will account for the majority of utility-scale growth over the next few years. In some parts of the world, building new renewable energy generators is less expensive than running existing coal-fired power plants.

The decline of coal has also been accelerated by a number of regulations, namely Obama-era rules on mercury and sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants. When the regulations were introduced in 2011, the EPA had no climate regulations for existing power plants, but coal-fired generators had to upgrade their pollution controls. At the time, it wasn’t worth keeping the country’s oldest plant running on expensive new equipment when natural gas was already much cheaper. The rule was delayed by the Supreme Court in 2015 and struck down by Trump in 2018, but it still hastened the closure of some coal plants.

Under Trump, coal’s retirement has only accelerated — even though his cabinet is packed with coal supporters, including former coal lobbyist and Trump’s EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler. Yet even with so many industry advocates in power, the Trump administration cannot prevent the inevitable. Although it launched a subsidy campaign for the Navajo Power Station coal plant in Arizona, the largest in the western U.S., the plant and its nearby coal mine closed in 2020.

The question now is how fast will coal go down

Although the overall trend is down, coal did see a recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic due to rising gas prices. The slowdown in coal decline will only make it harder for the United States to meet its climate change goals. Last year, President Joe Biden pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% relative to 2005 levels by 2030, but carbon dioxide pollution in the United States has instead increased.

U.S. electricity generation

Coal’s share of electricity production briefly rose during the Covid-19 pandemic.
U.S. Energy Information Administration

As a result, economics alone are not a reliable way to meet climate goals, and fossil fuel generators will have to be shut down faster. However, the Sierra Club counts the remaining 173 coal-fired power plants in the US with no plans to retire. Some power plant operators have even sought bailouts, with utilities propping up loss-making coal plants by raising interest rates for customers.

If the U.S. has any chance of slashing its climate pollution by 2030, each of these plants will need to be decommissioned by then.

Activists are certainly trying. The Sierra Club, through its Beyond Coal campaign, has been working to accelerate the decline of coal, proving in local hearings and public meetings that coal power generation is dangerous and harmful. The movement has shut down coal-fired power plants across the U.S. and hindered the construction of new plants.

Still, greenhouse gas emissions aren’t falling fast enough, and if environmental regulations weaken, the dirtiest energy sources could stay on for longer. With energy prices soaring and inflation rising in election years, tackling climate change has become a secondary priority. Getting on track will require a well-thought-out set of policies, such as clean power standards, but Congress is unlikely to pass any such measures this year. With a recent ruling limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court is limiting another important way to limit global warming. But it’s too little, too late, for the U.S. coal industry.

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