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The Trump administration's rollback of coal plant regulations last week has renewed hopes for those in the industry that some plants might stay open a little longer. The share of coal in the country's energy mix has dropped dramatically over the past decade. Even in the state that produces the most coal, there is concern that this latest lifeline is not going to be enough to turn this around. From Wyoming Public Radio, Cooper McKim reports.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).
COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: In Gillette, Wyo., on a bright, cloudless day, huge open-pit mines dot the perimeter of a coal-fired power plant, the Dry Fork Station. Inside, turbines are producing electricity from pulverized coal mined a mile south. It's feeding electricity to the entire Western grid right now.
TOM STALCUP: California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico west to the ocean.
MCKIM: That's Tom Stalcup, the plant manager here. He says the sun can stop shining, wind blowing. But coal, he says, is reliable.
STALCUP: Coal-fired power plants are a necessity to keep the system stable - the electricity grid stable in America.
MCKIM: Stalcup believes the Obama-era Clean Power Plan could have put that at risk. It aimed to cut carbon emissions by shifting away from coal to renewables. That would've been a big blow to Wyoming where the coal industry produces nearly a quarter of the state's income.
STALCUP: We're hoping, you know, this new plan under the Trump administration will relax that a little bit.
MCKIM: The new proposal, called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, would give states more power to regulate carbon emissions. It doesn't set any cap for reducing them. It simply suggests how individual plants could become more efficient.
STALCUP: You know, it'll keep some of the plants on. I don't know if it'll keep all of them on. But, yeah, I think it'll have an impact on which plants close and which plants stay running.
MCKIM: University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby is not so sure. He says the real problem for coal is economic. It's just too expensive compared to other forms of energy.
ROB GODBY: Coal-fired power plants have to compete directly with natural gas plants and renewables where they're already losing, and this plan really isn't going to affect that.
MCKIM: Godby says, sure, it's possible some plants could stay open longer. The proposal would allow coal plants to make minor emissions control changes without having to do a full bank-breaking environmental upgrade.
GODBY: It maybe creates a little bit more of an incentive to invest in some coal-fired power plants to keep them open a little longer than they might have been otherwise, but that is a very small number.
MCKIM: According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, utilities plan to close about three dozen coal units by 2020. And many say they don't expect that to change despite the new proposal. Cloud Peak Energy, the country's third largest coal producer, welcomes the rollback. But spokesman Rick Curtsinger says more could still be done to protect coal. He says the company would even like to see Congress step in.
RICK CURTSINGER: And develop comprehensive and cohesive energy legislation that gives long-term certainty to utilities to make the 20 and 30-year investments necessary for lasting affordable and reliable electricity.
MCKIM: Back at the Dry Fork Station, Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King says the administration's Affordable Clean Energy Rule is really just a short-term boost, plus everything could change again after the next presidential election.
LOUISE CARTER-KING: You know, there's always that thought. You just don't know what the next administration will do. That uncertainty is tough on people and the industry.
MCKIM: Utilities are mindful of that, too, which is another reason why the Trump administration's latest effort to help coal may not change much. For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim.
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