Week 98: Trump Tries Again (and Fails Again) to Save the Coal Industry

Week 98: Trump Tries Again (and Fails Again) to Save the Coal Industry

Plus, the president looks to autocrats for anti-climate allies, and the Atlantic coastline is about to get really noisy.

Trump Embraces Coal, Energy Markets Do Not

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans yesterday to ease limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. It’s all part of President Trump’s plan to pay lip service to coal miners while doing nothing to integrate them into the 21st-century economy.

Some background: In 2013, the EPA barred newly built coal-fired power plants from emitting more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. Mandating reduced emissions from coal is reasonable, since alternative energy sources are so much cleaner. Natural gas emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, and solar and wind emit, well, basically nothing. The Obama-era limit on coal essentially requires new plants to adopt carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, because there is no other way dirty coal can meet this emissions standard.

The rule has also effectively prevented the construction of new coal-fired plants, because recent high-profile failures have scared investors and utilities away from carbon capture projects. The proposed Kemper project in Mississippi, for example, was abandoned as commercially nonviable. Just one CCS plant, Petra Nova, in Texas, currently operates in the United States.

So, once the Trump administration rescinds the CCS requirement, we’ll see new coal-burning plants spring up all over the country, right? Wrong. The carbon pollution limit is just one of many obstacles to a coal-fired renaissance. Another, much larger, impediment: basic economics. Coal-burning power plants can’t compete with natural gas or ever-cheaper renewables, and that’s why they’re closing. Why would anyone build a new coal-fired plant when many of the ones we have are sitting idle, unable to sell their energy on the open market? Hundreds of plants have closed since 2010, and the closures are accelerating. In the first 45 days of 2018, more coal capacity was retired than in the first three years of the Obama administration. To boot, we learned this week that Americans are consuming less coal in 2018 than in any year since 1979.

Autocrats for Fossil Fuels?

Climate was the final item on the agenda at last weekend’s G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, and participants haggled over what exactly to say on this complicated global threat. In the end, the 20 representatives agreed to “continue to tackle climate change while promoting sustainable development and economic growth.”

An unnamed senior Trump official took the slightly prolonged negotiations as an indication that “there were other countries who are thinking long and hard about whether they still wanted to remain committed” to the Paris climate accord.

Which other countries, you ask? “Countries like Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, like Russia, might be second-guessing some of that,” the official told a gathering of reporters in Buenos Aires.

Behold the persuasive power of President Donald J. Trump. There now may be a trio of autocrats—two of whom oversee economies heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and the third of whom is battling an inflation crisis—questioning their commitment to renewable energy. Bravo, Mr. President. You are a true influencer.

I hasten to add that even this teeny, tiny Trump triumph may be false. There’s no evidence, aside from the whisperings of an unnamed administration official, that these countries are actually reconsidering their Paris commitments.

Think of it this way: When the Trump administration wants to anonymously plant the idea in the press that the Paris agreement is unraveling, the biggest dream it can come up with is that three countries with poor human rights records and a need for fossil fuel money might be moving toward the U.S. position.

In reality, that any more countries will exit the Paris accord is unlikely—not even Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Russia. First, they probably don’t care enough about the accord to withdraw. Putin, in particular, is largely indifferent. Second, none of them face domestic political pressure to make a show of climate change denial, as President Trump does. Third, there’s simply no benefit to withdrawal. All it would do is surrender their country’s spot at the table during future negotiations.

The United States also can’t officially leave the Paris agreement until November 4, 2020, when the country could have a brand-new president-elect.

Noisy and Bad for the Environment, Just Like Trump

At the tail end of last week, the Trump administration issued five seismic exploration permits along the U.S. Atlantic coastline from Delaware to Florida. The permits allow oil and gas companies to fire air guns every 10 seconds for weeks or months on end, in an attempt to map out potential fossil fuel deposits beneath the seabed.

The noise has been proved beyond dispute to harm marine ecosystems. The blasts can kill invertebrates and displace fish. But marine mammals, which rely on sound to communicate and navigate their environment, suffer the most dramatic effects. The testing would, in a sense, “blind” these animals, preventing them from foraging, hunting, and mating. The North Atlantic right whale is in particular peril. The species is already down to just 450 individuals, and seismic testing could drive the whale to extinction.

It’s worth noting that, even if these companies find oil, the potential for drilling is hugely unpopular up and down the East Coast. Polls conducted in coastal states show large majorities either very worried or outright opposed to offshore drilling, and more than 200 municipalities, 1,200 local officials, and 40,000 businesses have spoken out against it. But even if the drilling never happens, the seismic testing still might.

The Trump administration assures conservationists that it will not allow blasting within 56 miles of any endangered marine mammals. But that is cold comfort, since the sound from the blasts can travel 2,000 miles. The concession is a bit like telling a homeowner not to worry, because the jackhammering is going to be on the opposite side of the street.