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Near the end of the second presidential debate on Sunday evening, the candidates were asked about America’s energy policy. Republican candidate, Donald Trump, was quick to pounce on the opportunity to lament the slow death of coal country. Indeed, coal production is at its lowest level in 35 years. The industry is plagued by bankruptcies and in West Virginia alone, the state’s economy has lost more than 35 percent of its coal-related jobs.

Trump then pointed his finger squarely the Obama administration and its efforts to enforce stricter emissions rules through the Environmental Protection Agency as the chief culprit of the decline.

Was his accusation justified? According to a study just released by Case Western Reserve University: not quite.  

Published in The Electricity Journal, the study determined that although EPA regulations have had an impact, the shale revolution and the abundance of cheap natural gas has been the primary driver behind the decline in coal.

Part of their conclusion was based on timing. Until June 2016, about 93 percent of the coal in the U.S. was produced under the same regulations that were passed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. In fact, between 1990 and 2008 coal consumption grew.

Then in 2008, fracking brought so much natural gas — a cleaner and cheaper alternative — onto the scene that coal couldn’t compete.

The researchers say that regulations played a part in discouraging coal production, but its fate was sealed more by natural gas production. Between 2008 and 2015, natural gas production increased by a factor of 10 while its prices dropped in half.

"Some people attribute the decline in coal-generated electricity to the EPA's air-quality rules, even calling it 'Obama's war on coal,'" said Mingguo Hong, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the study. "While we can't say that the EPA rules have no impact — as, for example, discouraging the building of new coal power plants because of the expectation that tougher air-quality rules will clear the courts — the data say the EPA rules have not been the driving force."

The researchers studied data from a variety of sources including the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Wall Street analysts, academia and specialized energy consultants.

They also noted that natural gas supplies are still growing and that it’s hard to imagine a way that the coal industry will rebound to pre-2008 levels.

Click here to read more on the study and the authors’ forecasts for the future energy market in the U.S.

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