Researchers find Trump’s plan to save coal plants would boost premature deaths

Mortality rates would cancel out the potential economic benefits of keeping coal plants open.

Smoke and steam vapor pour out of the huge coal-fired Bruce Mansfield power plant overlooking the Ohio River in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Smoke and steam vapor pour out of the huge coal-fired Bruce Mansfield power plant overlooking the Ohio River in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s plan to save coal-fired power plants from retirement could cause enough premature deaths from harmful power plant emissions to offset the potential economic benefits of keeping the plants open. This is according to a new study from Resources for the Future (RFF), a prominent energy and environmental research organization.

The study published Thursday shows that the Trump plan to bail out coal and nuclear power plants — leaked to the news media in late May — would cause between 353 and 815 of additional premature deaths in 2019 and 2020 from increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions — the most common and hazardous air pollutants that come from burning coal. The negative economic impact of these health and environmental effects would be in the billions of dollars.

This is the first study of its kind to look at the effects of Trump’s plan on coal mining jobs and mortality. It examines the effects of the policy in 2019 and 2020 on the assumption that the policy would be in effect for at least those two years and would delay most previously announced retirements of coal and nuclear power plants until at least the end of 2020.

On June 1, the White House issued a statement that said Trump had directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to “prepare immediate steps to stop the loss” of what the administration described as “fuel-secure power facilities,” a thinly veiled reference to coal and nuclear power plants.


A day earlier, Bloomberg News released a leaked draft 41-page proposal from the Energy Department that cited national security concerns as a reason for allowing Trump to require regional grid operators or electric utilities to purchase enough power from coal and nuclear plants to prevent them from closing.

Based on the calculations in the RFF study, Trump’s policy would support 790 coal mine jobs. But on the other hand, it could reduce employment across the U.S. economy as a whole because of the policy’s impact on other economic sectors. T

The researchers also found that for each year the policy was in place, it would cause one death for every 2 to 4.5 coal-mine jobs that it supports.

The researchers — RFF visiting fellow Daniel Shawhan and RFF research assistant Paul Picciano — also found that if the Trump administration delayed the retirement of an average of 7,800 megawatts of coal-fired capacity and 1,100 megawatts of nuclear capacity, it would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 22 million short tons, over the two-year period. This amount of carbon dioxide is the amount emitted by 4.3 million average U.S. cars each year, according to RFF.

The total estimated “welfare loss” from these deaths and carbon dioxide emissions is between $4 billion and $9 billion, with deaths from sulfur dioxide emissions making up the majority.


Welfare loss refers to the dollar value of the health and environmental effects of a policy. The welfare loss from premature deaths, for example, means the estimated value that a population places on reducing premature deaths, knowing that any person could be among those killed or saved.

If put into action, the administration’s plan to buy power from struggling coal and nuclear generators would be an unprecedented federal intervention in wholesale power markets. Proponents of helping the coal and nuclear industries are pushing a variety of ways to support the two sectors.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a top congressional supporter of the coal industry, introduced the Energy Reliability Act of 2018, which would offer a tax credit to coal generators. The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The Trump administration also has been exploring using the Defense Production Act of 1950 to help coal and nuclear plant owners. The law gives the president broad powers to require businesses to prioritize contracts for materials deemed vital to national security. In this case, electric grid operators and utilities could be forced to purchase power from coal and nuclear plants if Trump invokes the act.

FirstEnergy Solutions has proposed the use of the Federal Power Act to keep certain coal and nuclear plants open in the eastern U.S. Perry has yet to rule on FirstEnergy Solutions’ petition.


FirstEnergy Solutions’ petition came after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in January rejected Perry’s request to bail out coal and nuclear plants in all competitive electricity markets, a proposal for which FirstEnergy was a vocal supporter.

Perry’s proposal would have delayed the retirement of about 25,000 megawatts of coal generation and 20 megawatts of nuclear. Over 25 years this plan would have caused 27,000 premature deaths, $217 billion in environmental costs, and $46 billion in non-environmental costs, according to the RFF researchers.

For its study, the RFF researchers examined Trump’s proposal to prevent the retirement of most coal and nuclear power plants that would otherwise retire. They found that for Trump’s proposal to produce a net environmental benefit, the nuclear generators it saves would need to generate about three times as much electrical energy as the coal generators it saves.

But based on their analysis of Trump’s proposal, energy production would instead be weight toward coal. Trump’s plan would increase the two-year total coal generation by 38 terawatt-hours and the two-year total nuclear generation by 17 terawatt-hours compared to energy production if the plan were not implemented.