The death spiral of coal in the U.S.: will changes in U.S. Policy turn the tide?

Synthesis Article, Climate Policy Journal


The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to stop the ongoing spiralling down of the U.S. coal industry. We discuss the origins of the decline and assess the effects of policy interventions by the Trump administration. We find that, with fierce competition from natural gas and renewables, a further decrease of coal consumption must be expected by the old and inefficient U.S. coal-fired electricity generation fleet. By contrast, we consider the overly optimistic (for coal producers) view of the U.S. Energy Information Agency, and test whether the tide for the U.S. coal industry could turn as a result of three potential support measures: (i) revoking the Clean Power Plan (CPP); (ii) facilitating access to the booming Asian market; and (iii) enhanced support for Carbon Capture, Transport and Storage (CCTS) technology. We investigate the short-term and long-term effects on U.S. coal production using a comprehensive partial equilibrium model of the world steam coal market, COALMOD-World (Holz, Haftendorn, Mendelevitch, & von Hirschhausen, 2016). We find that revoking the CPP could stop the downward trend of steam coal consumption in the U.S., but even allowing for additional exports, will not lead to a return of U.S. coal production to the levels of the 2000s, that is, over 900 Mt per year. When global steam coal use is aligned with the 2°C climate target, U.S. steam coal production drops to around 100 Mt per year by 2030 and below 50 Mt by 2050, even if CCTS is available and exports via the U.S. West Coast is possible.


Key policy insights

  • Declining U.S. coal use is primarily caused by competition from natural gas and renewables not by environmental regulation of the coal sector.

  • Without substantial policy support, U.S. coal-fired generation capacity will continue to decline rapidly.

  • Revoking the Clean Power Plan will lead to about one eighth higher U.S. coal production in the next years.

  • Carbon Capture, Transport and Storage does not prevent the rapid decline of coal use required under stringent climate policy.

  • Even in the most extreme pro-coal scenarios with additional export possibilities, U.S. coal production will not return to its pre-2010 levels.


  • TU Berlin

  • DIW Berlin


TU Berlin, DIW Berlin, HU Berlin, Öko-institut