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Kentucky Coal Outlook Bleak, Regardless Of Clean Power Plan Status

German smokestacks

After a few ebullient days in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to temporarily block the Obama Administration’s carbon dioxide regulations, the plaintiff states and industry groups were dealt a blow with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday.

Scalia was the court’s most vocally conservative justice, and he was part of the 5-4 majority that blocked the Clean Power Plan.

Legal experts interpreted that decision as bad news for the regulations. The Clean Power Plan is set to be considered by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. But no matter the decision, it will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.

And now, the court will consider the regulations without Scalia.

If President Obama appoints a justice — and the Senate confirms — before his term ends in January, it’s likely that justice will be more liberal than Scalia, possibly tipping the balance in favor of the EPA regulations. If he doesn’t, it’s possible the court will be deadlocked, which means the D.C. Circuit’s ruling will stand.

Last week, after the news of the Supreme Court’s decision broke, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin issued a statement calling the temporary block a "huge win in the fight against Obama's disastrous Clean Power Plan."

"The court's decision to freeze these illegal climate regulations is a victory in our efforts to save our coal jobs and protect Kentucky families from skyrocketing energy prices. We will continue to challenge these regulations as the litigations continue in court,” he wrote.

But it remains to be seen how many coal jobs will be left — or how electricity prices will be affected — with or without the Clean Power Plan. Here’s the current landscape of Kentucky’s coal industry, which doesn’t yet reflect the carbon regulations.

• During the last quarter of 2015, Kentucky’s coal mining jobs hit another record low.There were only about 8,400 miners working in the state--the lowest number since the state began keeping mining employment records in 1927. Even if the Clean Power Plan is blocked for years and eventually overturned, it’s unlikely it will put more coal miners to work.

• More than half of Kentucky's coal capacity will be gone by 2040.

Kentucky's Coal-Fired Power Plants

• Eastern Kentucky coal is among the most expensive in the country. It’s so expensive that most Kentucky power plants aren’t buying it, choosing instead coal from Western Kentucky, Wyoming, Illinois and Indiana. In 2014, Eastern Kentucky coal only provided 5.5 percent of the coal burned in Kentucky power plants.

Kentucky Power Plants

• The EPA’s carbon pollution standards for new power plants will make it very hard to build new coal-fired power plants unless there are substantial technological advances in carbon capture and sequestration.

Of course, this all refers to the current landscape, and it doesn’t say much about whether the Clean Power Plan could cause an even more dire outlook for the coal jobs that are left in Kentucky.

But in a presentation to a legislative committee shortly before he left office, former Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters said by his calculations, complying with the rule via a mass-based approach (one of the two available options) wouldn’t require shutting down a large number of its coal-fired generation.

He added that if “natural gas prices remain at the projected low prices predicted by the [Energy Information Administration], electricity rates could be minimally impacted.”

This article has been corrected to reflect the correct number of coal miners working in Kentucky.