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Trump has yet to deliver promise to bring back coal

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Analysts say Mr Trump's proposal is unlikely to dramatically change the coal industry's fortunes or lead to new domestic demand.

Washington

MORE than any other recent president, Donald Trump came to office promising to revive coal and restore mining jobs.

Nineteen months into his term, there's little improvement.

The industry, which will be a focus of Mr Trump's visit to West Virginia on Tuesday, has rebounded slightly from a devastating 2016, when cheap natural gas was crushing coal in the power market and three major producers were in bankruptcy.

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But an uptick in exports is masking a bigger problem: The industry is still losing US customers as utilities increasingly turn to natural gas and renewable power to generate electricity.

Mr Trump's "impact on the coal sector has been extremely minimal in nature despite his rhetoric", said Andrew Cosgrove, a Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst.

"Power plant retirements are still happening and set to continue looking out through the end of his term." In fact, government analysts expect continuing declines, with US coal production, consumption and exports all projected to decrease in 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration.

It's not for a lack of trying. Mr Trump is heading to West Virginia - the No 2 coal producing state - for back-to-back campaign events on Tuesday, the same day his Environmental Protection Agency is slated to advance the administration's latest effort to help the sector: a plan to dramatically scale back Obama administration limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The proposal offers a framework for replacing former president Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which dictated specific carbon-cutting targets to states and then encouraged sweeping changes across the nation's electric grid to satisfy them, including the retirement of coal-fired plants and the addition of renewable power.

Mr Trump's substitute plan instead focuses on what can be done to improve efficiency at individual power plants so they generate fewer carbon dioxide emissions per unit of generated electricity, according to people familiar with the plan who asked not to be identified before its release. It also grants states more leeway in regulating plants within their borders.

Analysts say the Mr Trump proposal is unlikely to dramatically change the coal industry's fortunes or lead to new domestic demand. But it dovetails with other Trump administration efforts to ease regulations that discouraged plants from using coal and made it more expensive to extract - changes that may help the industry at the margins.

The question isn't how much better the industry is doing under Mr Trump, but how much worse it would have been doing without him, said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association. Mr Trump has stopped the "bloodletting" that was under way under Mr Obama and is "taking away some of the barriers, allowing us to compete," Mr Quinn said.

The power market has "stabilised to some extent, as opposed to the precipitous drop we saw over three or four years". Mr Quinn said by phone. "The market is the market, but on the policy side, what they have done is allow us to respond to the market." Even if Mr Trump's efforts haven't generated big market gains, they have provided psychological relief for the battered coal industry.

And politically, the president's words and actions matter more, said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor with West Virginia's Marshall University.

Mr Trump has "demonstrated sympathy to coal miners," and even if coal declines under the president's watch, he won't suffer in West Virginia "as long as his rhetoric is pro-coal and his policies do not increase regulation", prof Beller said. BLOOMBERG