Why some coal companies want Trump to stay in Paris climate deal

The coal industry is divided over whether President Donald Trump should pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement — with some producers hoping they could gain some economic leverage if he chooses to stay.

The top three U.S. coal producers — Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — indicated in recent meetings with White House officials that they would not publicly object to sticking with the international accord, particularly if the administration can secure more financial support for technology to reduce pollution from the use of coal, according to industry officials and sources close to the administration.

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Some Trump administration officials have been flirting with such a strategy, POLITICO reported earlier this month.

But that approach faces resistance from others in the industry, such as Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, mirroring the broader split within the administration over the global climate deal.

Peabody, Arch and Cloud Peak hope to see their policy priorities reflected in the reworked domestic climate plan that the Trump administration would probably submit if it decides to stay in the 2015 Paris deal, the sources said. Together the three companies mine more than 42 percent of the coal produced in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.

Arch spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi praised the administration for reconsidering former President Barack Obama’s climate change regulations for power plants and focusing instead on “driving progress on advanced, low-emissions fossil fuel technologies that will provide far greater benefits over time,” but she did not directly address the company’s position on the international deal.

“We are confident that the administration is taking these same priorities into consideration as it evaluates the way forward with regard to the Paris agreement,” Bonacorsi said.

Peabody did not respond to requests for comment, and a Cloud Peak spokesman declined to comment.

But other coal companies remain deeply opposed to the U.S. remaining in the Paris deal, arguing that the global effort to crack down on emissions could further harm the ailing industry. In the agreement, the U.S. and nearly 200 nations committed to take steps in the coming decades to sharply reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

Robert Murray, who has close ties to the Trump administration, called the deal “illegal” and a waste of taxpayer money in a February speech in Miami. Murray joined the president on Tuesday when Trump signed an executive order that took the first steps toward repealing key portions of Obama’s climate agenda. His company is the largest private coal company in the country and, according to EIA, the fifth-largest overall producer.

The divide over Paris was briefly on display during a Monday conference call with members of the National Mining Association, according to two people familiar with the private exchange.

Amid a discussion about the possibility that the U.S. may not withdraw from the Paris agreement, Murray lobbyist Andrew Wheeler underscored the company’s opposition to the accord. Sources stressed that Paris was not the focus of the discussion, which only briefly touched on the issue.

A National Mining Association spokesman declined to comment. A Murray Energy spokesman pointed to the company’s record of opposition to the Paris deal.

Trump is expected to nominate Wheeler as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. A former aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) who has worked at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels since 2009, Wheeler does not lobby specifically on the Paris agreement, but he could prove to be an influential opponent of the deal if he joins the administration. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called the agreement a “bad deal” in a recent interview.

That any coal companies are considering giving their tacit approval to staying in the Paris agreement marks a significant shift. Many coal companies have long been wary of the accord. But the World Coal Association, which includes Peabody among its members, has said it sees the agreement as an opportunity to get more financial support for technologies to cut coal emissions, especially since developing countries are still so reliant on the fossil fuel.

Trump administration officials who support remaining in the agreement have been quietly meeting with energy companies to build support for their approach, which includes weakening and rewriting Obama’s 2015 pledge to reduce U.S. emissions by 2025.

The Trump officials’ pitch: Keeping a seat at the table in international climate talks will preserve important relationships with other countries, and it could give the U.S. leverage to boost fossil fuels and help ease access to foreign coal markets.

“If you’ve got the ability to try to increase coal’s access to markets, you’ve got to take it,” said a person who favors staying in Paris, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the internal discussions.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an informal Trump energy adviser, echoed White House aides’ strategy in a letter to the president he is circulating to his colleagues.

The new U.S. climate target should showcase “the energy security, consumer, and emission benefits produced by the shale revolution and emphasize the importance of baseload power generation, including highly efficient and low emission coal-fired and nuclear power plants, to grid reliability,” Cramer wrote.

“We should work closely with our allies to develop, deploy and commercialize cleaner technologies to help ensure a future for fossil fuels within the context of the global climate agenda, including support for the deployment of highly efficient and low-emission coal, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies, in global markets,” he added.

In an interview, Cramer said he has discussed his proposal with several coal companies, adding that their response has been “pretty favorable to say the least.” Cramer declined to the name the coal companies he has talked to.

“They’ve been pretty generally supportive of the concept,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for them, but I do get the sense that there’s some serious weighty thinking going on.”

Technology to capture emissions from coal-fired power plants is seen by some coal companies as crucial for competing with low- or zero-carbon energy sources in a world that is increasingly focused on tackling climate change. But the technology has proved difficult and expensive to commercialize, and many climate activists have argued that the money should go instead to promoting green energy sources such as wind and solar.

Major oil companies like ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips have also advocated staying in the Paris deal, with Exxon reiterating its position in a letter to the White House last week.

It remains unclear what Trump will decide to do about the Paris accord. Most Republicans in Congress oppose the agreement, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is said to be in favor of withdrawing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Trump will make a final decision on whether to stay in the Paris deal by the G-7 summit, which will take place May 26-27 in Italy.

Alex Guillén contributed to this report.