As concerns about climate disruption and pollution continue to seep into markets and political systems across the globe, coal will never be "clean" enough to keep up with other sources of energy. However, coal is intimately connected to an industrial past that President Donald Trump glorified on the campaign trail. That's why Trump hired Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and give coal a helping hand.
On Tuesday, Pruitt and the EPA released a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature environmental achievement, which requires power generators to clean up their coal-burning operations or switch to a different fuel source. The rules were principally designed to help the nation meet international climate commitments -- commitments that Trump has said he wants to ditch -- by reducing carbon emissions. The new regulations would also prevent thousands of premature deaths each year by reducing other types of air pollution.
From the destructive act of mining to the toxic pollution that coal plants spew into the air and leave behind in massive sludge pits, coal is one of the dirtiest ways to generate power. It's the nation's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions and responsible for about one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions.
For Trump, though, coal holds the key to voters in the regions thought to have thrust him into the White House: the Appalachian rust belts and Midwestern industrial corridors where heavy loads of coal mined from rural hillsides were once loaded onto trains and transported to steel mills and manufacturing plants before globalization sent those jobs overseas, leaving a disgruntled -- and in some areas, a mostly white -- working class behind. Coal-burning power plants survived these economic shifts, thanks to a constant demand for cheap domestic energy.
The EPA spent much of the Obama administration working to clean up the coal industry, but the industry kicked and screamed in the face of regulations that require costly investments in much-needed pollution controls and give cleaner fuels a competitive advantage, accusing Obama of waging a "war on coal." Once in office, Trump appointed Pruitt to turn back the clock.
"The war on coal is over," Pruitt said on Monday as he announced his plans to repeal the Clean Power Plan in a coal-producing region of Kentucky.
Going to bat for coal helped Pruitt launch into national politics and become the head of a major environmental agency despite his skepticism of climate science. While serving as attorney general of Oklahoma, a power company complained directly to Pruitt, even providing him with a report detailing how Obama-era regulations would force power generators to spend millions of dollars on equipment upgrades to reduce smog and carbon emissions. Pruitt went on work with the coal, oil and gas industry to challenge nearly all of the Obama administration's environmental initiatives in court.
In its proposal for repealing its own rules, Pruitt's EPA argues that the Clean Power Plan "exceeds the bounds" of the Clean Air Act by setting goals for each state that would require some power generators to switch from coal to cleaner alternatives and even shut down some aging coal plants altogether. Indeed, the question of whether the federal government has the power to shape energy markets in order to thwart climate disruption was bound to end up in court, and the Supreme Court issued a stay on the Clean Power Plan last year while lower courts heard industry challenges to the rule. Now it will be environmentalists' turn to challenge Pruitt's repeal proposal in court.
Theoretically, Pruitt doesn't see a problem with requiring coal plants to install modest upgrades, as long they aren't forced to shut down or switch from coal to another fuel like natural gas. He may even propose such rules at the behest of the industry, which fears falling behind technologically and being unprepared if a Democrat reenters the White House and brings tougher regulations back in force.
However, under Pruitt, the EPA is already reconsidering other Obama-era regulations limiting the amount of mercury and other toxic pollutants that coal plants can spew into the air, as well as rules that would require tougher standards for storing the toxic coal ash sludge generated by power plants. Coal ash sludge ponds have contaminated waterways across the country and are responsible for massive environmental disasters in North Carolina and Tennessee. The industry has long opposed these standards, even though required upgrades have caused only a few plants to shut down.
Meanwhile, climate disruption continues at an alarming pace, and the US continues to suffer from coal pollution. By setting caps on carbon, the Clean Power Plan would both take steps toward addressing climate disruption and also reduce emissions of dangerous air pollutants that lodge deep in the tissue of the lungs and cause an array of health problems. Under Obama, the EPA estimated that if the Clean Power Plan were implemented, 90,000 asthma attacks in children and 1,700 heart attacks would be avoided by 2030, creating billions of dollars worth of public health benefits. (Pruitt's EPA now argues that the Obama administration overestimated these benefits, a claim critics say is not based in science.)
"You’d hope the head of the EPA would champion policies that shield kids from the life-threatening risks of asthma, but Pruitt and the Trump administration have clearly shown whose interests they care most about: the failing coal industry, not America’s children," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, in a statement.
Americans want cleaner energy and less pollution. Polls show that a majority of voters in all 50 states support the Clean Power Plan's limits on pollution from coal plants, and 61 percent of voters disapprove of Trump's environmental policies. However, as his polarizing outbursts about football protests and North Korea suggest, Trump is not concerned about the majority of voters. He is concerned with nurturing the base that brought him into office, and his environmental agenda remains popular among a majority of Republicans.
The Trump administration's love affair with the coal industry is not about jobs or "energy independence," as Trump claimed in his executive order that set the stage for a Clean Power Plan repeal. Investors now understand the need for clean energy, and market forces and state-level initiatives are already shifting some parts of the country away from coal. For Trump, the coal issue is a source of base political power that clearly shows his opposition to Obama's policies. With Congress stalled on health care and taxes, issuing administrative orders to roll back environmental regulations will provide "accomplishments" for Trump to campaign on in 2020. Unfortunately, the health of our communities -- and our climate -- will suffer because of it.