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SALT LAKE CITY — The continued political and economic pressure on coal production in Utah and around the United States drove the Utah Foundation to examine the issue in a series of three reports, the first of which was released Wednesday.
Among the top observations in the first installment are the close relationships at play between lower electricity prices and coal rich states — such as Utah — and the uncertainty that persists over the viability of coal-fired power plants in the future, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
"The overarching takeaway is the new administration is going to have some short-term effects on coal production, but not likely over the long term because we live in a place based on market demand," said Shawn Teigen, the foundation's research director and author of the reports.
Utah produced 14.4 million tons of coal in 2015 from eight underground mines and one surface mine, but production has been declining for years.
In 2005, production was half of what it was in 2001, the report notes.
Teigen said there are a number of factors driving declining production among coal states, including the advent of cheap natural gas, environmental regulations that make coal-fired power plants more expensive to run, and political pressure to cut carbon emissions.
Federal regulations aimed at cutting emissions led, in part, to the closure of the Carbon Power Plant in 2015 and the loss of jobs in Carbon and Emery counties.
More jobs are expected to be lost — a couple hundred — in Millard County as the Intermountain Power Plant likely transforms to all natural gas to meet a coal-free emissions requirement imposed by its Southern California customers.
Such job losses in small communities have big effects, Teigen emphasized, which is why the final report in the series will look at how coal towns and economies are adjusting to the gradual transition away from coal-fired electricity.
Utah continues to get 76 percent of its power generation from coal and has 128 million tons of recoverable coal under lease by mining companies. Statewide, its total reserves are more than 4.5 billion tons of coal, but much of that is locked up in land-use restrictions or is not economically feasible to mine, the report notes.
Teigen said the Trump administration's expected abandonment of the controversial Clean Power Plan implemented by former President Barack Obama, coupled with higher natural gas prices, should result in an uptick in coal production in the country for the first time in years.
In early 2017, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Western coal-producing states will have the most dramatic jump in production, a spike that will continue into 2020.
That spike bodes well, at least for now, for coal-producing states such as Utah.
"Regardless of what happens in this administration or the next, there will be coal mining in those communities for years to come," Teigen said.
Industry and researchers are continuing to look for new ways to use coal to keep production viable as a way to help those communities.
Last fall, the University of Utah received a $790,000 federal grant to test the feasibility of transforming coal into a carbon fiber for use in the manufacturing of a variety of products, including skis, automobiles and aircraft.
Such research is critical given that many experts, including those in the energy sector, predict a full comeback for the nation's coal energy sector is improbable.
Between 2016 and 2020, Teigen's report notes there may be five new coal-fired power plants that come online in the United States, but another 93 will be closed.
In contrast, 281 natural-gas power plants are expected to become operational.
"There is going to be continued downward pressure," he said.