BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- President Donald Trump's move to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing climate change came as the coal industry is reeling from bankruptcies, pollution restrictions and growing competition from natural gas, wind and solar.
The White House said the order, signed Tuesday, will trigger a review of the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce power plant emissions, and will rescind a moratorium on the sale of coal mining leases on federal lands.
Here's a look at how the moves will affect the coal industry across the country and in Ohio:
AN INDUSTRY IN DECLINE
Trump's move to support coal mining is unlikely to turn around the industry immediately.
Experts say coal's biggest problem isn't a shortage of the fuel to dig or even climate change regulations but cheap and abundant natural gas. Gas prices dropped as advances in drilling such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, greatly increased the amount of gas on the market. For many utilities, that's made gas a more attractive fuel than coal.
U.S. coal production fell to 739 million tons last year, the lowest level in almost four decades. From 2011 through 2016, the coal mining industry lost about 60,000 jobs, leaving just over 77,000 miners, according to preliminary Labor Department data that excludes mine office workers.
Data for Ohio 2016 coal production is not yet available, but the previous 15 years are. The reports from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shows a dramatic decline in production, though not quite as dramatic of a decline in employment.
In 2015, Ohio was ranked the 12th largest coal producer of the top 25 coal producing states, the ODNR reported. Twenty companies operating 43 mines in 14 Ohio counties produced more than 16.9 million tons of coal, most of it used by power plants.
The average number of coal jobs in 2015 was 2,352, with 1,764 working directly in surface or underground mines. Surface miners earned a median wage of $57,202 while underground miners earned a median wage of $78,348.
In 2000, 44 Ohio companies -- more than twice the number in 2015 -- operated 113 surface and underground mines in 21 Ohio counties and produced nearly 22.5 million tons of coal for power plants.
The average number of Ohio coal jobs in 2000 was 2,717, with 1,640 jobs directly tied to production. The average annual wage for surface mine workers was $39,171, and he average annual wage for underground miners was $53,898.
Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said Trump's actions means "a much brighter future for the coal industry."
Still, companies have gotten more efficient at extracting coal, meaning fewer workers are needed to dig a given amount of fuel. Mountaintop removal mining, in which hilltops in Appalachia are blasted off with explosives to expose coal seams, is less expensive and more automated than underground mining. So are the massive strip mines developed since the 1970s in Wyoming and Montana, where conveyor belts move coal for miles across the open landscape to load onto trains.
Coal's share of the U.S. power market has dwindled from more than 50 percent last decade to about 32 percent last year.
In Ohio coal-fired power plants generated about 59 percent of the electricity last year, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Gas was used to generate about 23 percent of Ohio's power in 2016, nuclear about 14 percent and renewables about 2.28 percent.
Gas and renewables have both made gains across the nation, and hundreds of coal-burning power plants have been retired or are scheduled to shutter soon -- trends over which Trump has limited influence.
In Ohio, one gas turbine plant -- owned by American Municipal Power -- is generating electricity. There are currently four gas turbine plants under construction. Another six gas turbine plants are currently planned for Ohio and are expected to begin generating power between 2019 and 2021.
Utilities "are not going to flip on a dime and say now it's time to start building a whole bunch of coal plants because there's a Trump administration," said Brian Murray, director of environmental economics at Duke University's Nicholas Institute.
SHOULD THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIZE COAL?
The Obama administration blocked the sale of new coal leases on federal lands in January 2016 to determine if the government's coal program was shortchanging taxpayers and exacerbating climate change by effectively subsidizing coal.
In some cases, coal companies bought leases for as little as 1 cent per ton under a program that's supposed to be competitive but often involves just a single bidder. The royalties these companies pay to the government on each ton of coal mined have remained unchanged since 1976.
Under the moratorium, the Obama administration was considering raising royalty rates as much as 50 percent. Trump has put that proposal on hold.
On Feb. 16, the president overturned a rule that blocked coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams, a low-cost disposal method used in mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
Collectively, Trump's recent orders put the brakes on Obama-era actions would have made it more costly for companies to get coal from public lands and for utilities to burn the fuel.
About 40 percent of coal produced in the U.S. comes from federal land in Western states. Companies operating in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the nation's dominant coal region, control enough reserves to last 20 years.
Even before the moratorium, many mining companies were going bankrupt. They have voluntarily delayed their plans to lease tracts holding 1.5 billion tons of coal, including public lands not covered by the moratorium, according to Interior Department records reviewed by The Associated Press.
That's enough fuel to run the nation's coal-fired power plants for two years at current consumption rates.
The eight-state Appalachian region once dominated coal mining but now accounts for less than 25 percent of production after hundreds of mines there closed. Mines in the Midwest and South also have seen declines.
THE CARBON BALANCE
Lease applications blocked by the Obama moratorium included more than 1.8 billion tons of coal from two dozen mines.
Burning that coal would unleash an estimated 3.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That's equivalent to a year of emissions from 700 million cars. And that is just a small portion of the federal government's coal reserves.
Environmentalists say keeping those reserves in the ground is crucial to the global effort to minimize climate change.
Cloud Peak Energy CEO Colin Marshall described Trump's executive orders on coal as an important step toward lifting the "punitive and ill-conceived" regulations under President Barack Obama. The moratorium had blocked the company's applications to lease more than 200 million tons of coal in Montana.
Yet Marshall said more will be needed from Congress for the industry to survive long term, such as investments in so-called clean coal programs under which utilities could capture carbon from burning coal to keep it out of the atmosphere.
In Ohio, Robert Murray, chairman, president and CEO of Murray Energy -- which accounts for about half the coal mined in the state, issued a statement in which he said he and his employees are "extremely pleased."
"We are extremely pleased that President Trump has, once again, followed through on his promise to preserve coal jobs and low cost electricity in the United States.
"Indeed, President Obama and his supporters closed 411 coal-fired power generating units, totaling 101,000 megawatts, all for absolutely no environmental benefit."
Murray, whose company was the first to file suit against the Clean Power Plan, said the plan would have forced the closing of of more power plants and increases in power prices.
The action, he said, "will preserve the jobs and family livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, the jobs and family livelihoods that depend on them, and low-cost electricity."
-- Plain Dealer energy reporter John Funk contributed to this report.