Coal miners will be going back to work with an increase in demand coming primarily from coal-fired power plants throughout 2017, said the head of the Energy Department's energy analysis arm on Tuesday.
"Higher coal-fired electricity generation in 2017 is expected to contribute to a boost in U.S. coal production this year," said Howard Gruenspecht, acting administrator of the Energy Information Administration, in issuing the new monthly short-term energy outlook.
The new short-term forecast shows coal mines rising from their lowest production numbers in nearly 40 years to experiencing a 3 percent increase in production in 2017 due to a surge in demand from coal power plants, the agency said. The forecast shows coal mining production increasing by 1 percent in 2018 as power plant demand continues to increase.
The new forecast should be welcome news for President Trump, who has vowed to put coal workers back to work. The changes are primarily market driven, however, and not due to any policy shift. Nevertheless, the shift could give Trump some necessary wiggle room as he gets his energy agenda off the ground in the coming months.
"Coal use by the U.S. electric power sector is set to increase during 2017 as higher natural gas prices cause some power plant operators to run more coal-fired generation," Gruenspecht said.
Natural gas is expected to continue to dominate electricity production over the next two years, the acting administrator said, underscoring the nation's recent switch from using primarily coal to generate its electricity to using primarily natural gas.
Nevertheless, coal-fired power plants will be "coming in a close second," the acting head of the agency said, suggesting that although natural gas power plants are increasing in number, natural gas is not overtaking coal by a large margin.
The new forecast projects that the nation's share of electricity generation from natural gas will drop 2 percentage points in 2017, moving from 34 percent last year to an average of 32 percent in 2017 as natural gas prices climb higher.
Natural gas prices are expected to rise from an average of about $3 per unit to nearly $4 per unit by next year. They have hovered around $2 for years due to the fracking boom that transformed the nation into a global energy powerhouse.
There are signs of life from the coal industry, as some mining companies are starting to hire again.
Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin reported from a coal mine in Hazard, Kentucky, that was shuttered in the Obama administration years, but is now operating again.
One lifelong coal miner told Tobin he's thankful to be working again after a three-year hiatus.