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Trump’s Plan to Save Coal Country Will Actually Hurt It

Coal country could fall further behind as other regions embrace the renewable energies of the future.

In a coal mine in Buchanan County, Virginia, miners still toil deep underground as their predecessors did when the region’s coal industry was bustling.

The Trump administration has replaced President Obama’s signature climate effort with new rules for power plants that are widely seen as a lifeboat for the nation’s struggling coal industry. Environmentalists have promised to challenge the rollback in court, arguing that Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist President Trump installed at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is ignoring the growing climate crisis along with the deadly health impacts of burning coal for electricity.

Analysts are already debating whether President Trump’s replacement will be enough to rescue the coal industry, because market forces and the public’s desire for cleaner energy are already pushing the energy sector away from coal at a rapid pace. Coal continues to be the largest source of greenhouse gases in the electricity sector. Thanks to the controversial fracking boom, coal is already struggling to compete with a glut of cheap natural gas — which the Trump administration has fully embraced, along with domestic oil. Renewable energy technology continues to improve and become more affordable nationwide, and with climate crisis looming, many observers see renewables as the future of energy.

This explains why environmentalists and energy industry analysts — not to mention most Democratic presidential hopefuls — say Trump’s attempt to extend the life of the coal power industry with regulatory maneuvers is not only bad for the environment and public health, but also bad for workers and the economy. Trump has built a strong following in coal country, but his policies could actually hurt the same workers he claims to be helping.

“Sadly, the Trump administration’s futile and cynical attempt to prop up the coal industry — instead of pushing for renewable energy investments in coal country — will hit coal miners and their families the hardest,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook, in an email.

Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a nonpartisan group of clean tech business leaders, estimated last year that the Clean Power Plan could create 560,000 jobs and add $52 billion to the gross domestic product by 2030 while developing alternatives to coal. Trump’s policy, on the other hand, is largely aimed at keeping existing jobs in place. The health and climate benefits of the Clean Power Plan alone were projected to reach $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030, according to the Obama EPA. This dwarfs the annual “net benefit” of $120 million to $730 million projected for Trump and Wheeler’s replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE).

E2 Communications Director Michael Timberlake called the new rule “a stopgap effort to delay America’s transition to clean energy sources” as dozens of states fill the vacuum in national climate leadership with their own clean energy initiatives.

“Clean energy actually already employs three times the number of workers as fossil fuels, but Trump is trying to offer states a false choice between economic growth and the environment with this plan,” Timberlake told Truthout in an email. “While it is encouraging to see this leadership from state legislatures and governors, the U.S. still needs a real national plan or we risk allowing too many communities to miss out on the economic opportunities created from a clean energy future that is already here.”

Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have placed nationwide caps on carbon pollution from power plants and was designed to force utilities to either seriously reduce emissions from coal-powered plants by making major investments in “carbon capture” technologies, or switch to different energy sources altogether, like natural gas and renewables. Finalized in 2015, the plan was immediately held up in court as a number of states, industry groups and powerful Republicans fought tooth-and-nail to keep it off the books.

In contrast, Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule sets emission reduction goals that the industry is already on track to meet as it slowly updates pollution control technology, along with loose guidelines for state regulators developing their own carbon reduction plans. It’s essentially the status quo, except analysts say it also creates incentives for utilities in certain states to keep old, dirty power plants running longer, rather than shutting them down and replacing them with cleaner, more efficient sources of power. Coal-burning power plants release soot and smog that causes an array of health problems in surrounding communities, and emissions under Trump’s rule could result in 1,400 more premature deaths than Obama’s, according to the EPA’s own projections.

“In finalizing the ACE rule, the EPA has officially reneged on its mission to protect public health. Instead, it is putting lives at risk,” said Jeff Carter, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a statement. “The EPA has decided to prolong the life of old, failing, dirty coal plants at the very moment we so desperately need a plan to wean ourselves from this filthiest of fuels.”

Trump campaigned for the coal miner’s vote, and the new rule to replace the Clean Power Plan is at the center of the president’s plan to keep coal afloat despite growing competition from fracked gas and renewables, particularly in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and the Southeast. After all, victories in coal-heavy swing states like Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina helped put Trump into the White House. The effort may preserve some mining jobs and will certainly help coal barons maximize profits before their industry finally collapses under market pressure. However, these states must also contend with the costly health impacts of coal, and they could fall further behind economically as other states invest in energy sources of the future.

“Thankfully, governors and state legislatures continue to move forward to transition our electric power to renewable sources like the sun and wind,” said Andrea McGimsey, senior director of the Global Warming Solutions Campaign at Environment America. “States like New Mexico and Washington have pledged 100 percent clean energy by 2045, and many more like New Jersey, and New York, are moving in the same direction.”

This explains why the Democrats jostling to challenge Trump in 2020 are not even debating the future of coal. They know that coal probably cannot survive economically in the long run. Recent polls show that 60 percent of voters wish to reduce consumption of all fossil fuels, and 57 percent say the industry should pay for the damages caused by global warming. Instead, Democrats are debating the Green New Deal and other plans for a massive public investment in clean energy, along with the future of coal’s biggest competitor: fracking, particularly for gas.

The fracking industry has caused environmental controversy for years, and its impacts on the environment and public health are well-documented. The rapid build-out of new pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure has impacted communities nationwide. While the Obama administration and the architects of the Clean Power Plan saw natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that is cleaner than coal, methane has proved to be a potent greenhouse gas, and now most environmentalists and climate scientists agree that gas is not a long-term solution to global warming.

As Truthout has reported, no less than 10 Democratic presidential candidates now support a ban on fracking, while others favor stricter federal regulations of the industry. Frontrunner Joe Biden has yet to take a clear position on fracking, but his support for industry-backed proposals like “carbon capture,” as well as statements about the U.S. energy boom suggest he would probably seek tougher environmental standards rather than an outright ban. Biden is likely to face serious challenges from opponents who argue the climate crisis requires more decisive action to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Trump, on the other hand, has completely embraced fossil fuels, a position that is becoming increasingly difficult to explain in a world growing increasingly anxious about climate change. His handouts to the coal industry create an easy target, even for a centrist opponent like Biden. Coal country has suffered economically for years now and already has some of the worst health outcomes in the nation. At some point, Trump will be forced to explain why keeping the dirtiest power plants alive is good for coal country, as well as the rest of the nation. With natural gas so cheap and renewables taking hold everywhere else, words like “good jobs” and “affordable energy” won’t be enough to cut it.

“There is no reason good paying careers in the wind and solar industries can’t replace the rapidly dwindling jobs in coal extraction,” Cook said. “But President Trump and his empty promises will only leave these already struggling communities even further behind.”

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