Front Porch Blog

All the ways this White House props up coal

The Trump administration chose the path of deregulation and climate change denial. How far is it willing to go?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after announcing the United States will leave the Paris Climate Accord.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after announcing the United States will leave the Paris Climate Accord.

When it comes to decision-making about our energy policy, the Trump administration’s allegiance to fossil fuel industries has been clear from the very start. The coal lobby’s influence over the president and his cabinet members is a given at this point — as is the White House’s willingness to put its finger on the scale in favor of our dirtiest, most carbon-packed energy sources.

The president is “picking winners and losers,” to borrow a phrase members of the current administration often aim at their predecessors. But this approach isn’t limited to Trump’s rally speeches, in which he has touted ending the “war on beautiful clean coal.” It is reshaping the priorities of federal agencies like the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy and, most of all, the Environmental Protection Agency.

The steps taken by these agencies in line with Trump’s priorities range from the trivial to the truly terrifying. One day EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt says on national television that carbon dioxide is not a “primary contributor” to climate change; the next, web content about basic climate science vanishes from the agency’s website. Then it gets worse. Trump rescinds the Stream Protection Rule, signs an executive order to unravel federal climate policies and indefensibly withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.

UPDATE: On June 19, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was asked the same question on the same show and, like Pruitt, falsely said that CO2 is not the “primary control knob” of climate change. According to Perry, “most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.”

I would suggest we count the steps the Trump administration has taken thus far to dismantle public health, environmental and climate protections that disadvantage coal but, after just a few months, that’s becoming difficult. Columbia University’s Sabin Center has set up a climate deregulation tracker, though, and the list keeps growing. When taken together, the less reported and much-publicized moves make up one of the most coordinated efforts across an executive branch that otherwise seems, let’s say, disorderly.

But the ongoing trends affecting the long-term outlook for coal are dictated more by market forces than by executive action, just as they were under President Obama. And the recent slight uptick in coal production and profits bears almost no resemblance to the comeback that Trump promised mining communities on the campaign trail. So the question is not so much is the strategy working, but how far is the White House willing to go to prop up coal without considering the consequences.

Another reminder that this administration will do coal’s bidding came last month at an energy conference held in Disney World — where “dreams come true,” apparently even for the coal industry. As reported by S&P Global, Mandy Gunasekara, a senior policy adviser at the EPA, told an audience of industry representatives, “I’m here to talk to you to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you. If it’s not working, I want to hear about it so that we can work it out.”

That’s the message coming from political appointees that also frequently accuse the previous administration of letting a political agenda dictate our energy policies. What could be more politically motivated than handing over the keys to powerful industries? The governing philosophy that treats regulated entities as “customers” and the responsibility of oversight and enforcement as “service” is familiar, particularly with regard to the coal industry in Appalachian states. Pro-industry forces are pulling the federal government even further in that direction.

All the friendly showings toward the coal industry aren’t the natural extension of the EPA’s mission that Pruitt makes them out to be. They aren’t rooted in research on topics like energy security or the economic benefits of affordable electricity. Nor do they consider climate science or factor in the costs pollution imposes on human health or the environment. Instead, Americans get constant political posturing, disputed data, while polluting industries enjoy concessions offered a la carte. The EPA is being corrupted from the top down and, for that reason, the agency’s recent actions seem coherent.

Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma’s attorney general and a longtime foe of the EPA, has become the face of this hollowed-out approach to environmental protection. The agency’s social media accounts and press releases are replete with pictures of the administrator smiling and shaking hands. The frequency of his appearances on Fox News and other right-wing outlets is raising questions about whether his position is just a stepping stone to elected office.

But we shouldn’t overlook the other influential fossil fuel allies peppered across the executive branch. At the U.S. Department of Energy, Secretary Rick Perry is taking a slightly more subversive approach to keep coal competitive. Back in April, Perry ordered a study of the electric grid to determine if policies that promote clean energy are accelerating coal plant retirements to a pace that threatens reliability. Those mostly state-level policies include tax credits and renewable standards that have boosted solar and wind generation.

As others have pointed out, the grid study suffers from a fundamental flaw. By ignoring the role of low-cost natural gas and attributing disruption in the electric sector to “regulatory burdens” that “threaten to undercut the performance of the grid,” Perry undercuts the legitimacy of the study from the outset. Energy watchers have taken on the question of grid reliability and concluded that not only is coal succumbing to market forces but cleaner forms of energy, efficiency improvements and transmission upgrades can work together to ensure reliability.

It’s no surprise that there is bipartisan skepticism about the secretary’s intentions. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state has the highest wind power density of any in the country, sent Perry a letter expressing concern that the “hastily developed” review would not be particularly helpful. According to Grassley, the review, “which appears to pre-determine that variable, renewable sources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources.”

Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), penned a similar letter, albeit in a more biting tone. “If DOE is going to take 60 days to perform a Study that the CEO of [California’s grid operator] said can be completed in an hour because the research has already been conducted, at the very least it is important that you consider the ample evidence that already exists,” the letter reads.

But it’s not clear that Perry, Pruitt or any of the president’s appointees want to consider that ample evidence. In fact, evidence is amassing to the contrary. Take the White House’s budget, a document that seems to target the scientific and research functions of executive agencies by design. It proposes a 70 percent reduction to DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Funding for the EPA would be slashed by 30 percent, more than any other agency. Earth and ocean science programs at NASA that give us and the rest of the world invaluable data about the ways the climate is changing are also targeted for elimination.

What else might an administration do to weaken the weight of science and research on energy and environmental policy decisions? Dismantle or suspend scientific review boards at the EPA and Interior Department? It’s a work in progress. Set aside millions of dollars to buy out EPA staff and reduce the agency’s workforce? Worth a shot. Fail to put forward nominees for dozens of science-related positions, including some that don’t require Senate confirmation? Sure, why not?

Five months into the Trump presidency, what we’re witnessing extends beyond a pattern of incompetence and disregard. The White House seems willing to outsource policy decisions that affect the lives of millions to industries that profit based on a particular outcome. It just so happens that those decisions are easier to make when inconvenient facts can be ignored.

Which brings us to the decision to leave the Paris climate agreement. While some describe the move as largely symbolic—the agreement is non-binding, its emissions targets are voluntary and Trump is already actively undermining carbon-cutting measures—it quickly became the most talked-about action the White House has taken to demonstrate its singular support for fossil fuels. The president’s mystifying announcement in the White House Rose Garden brought together all the facets of his administration’s strategy: pander to friendly industries, dramatically misrepresent the facts on what’s hurting coal and fall back on a conspiratorial version of climate denial.

Describing the agreement, as Trump did in his speech, as “less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” harkens back to the tweet in which he matter-of-factly called global warming a hoax invented by China “to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” (Trump also called the agreement “a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.”) Scott Pruitt was front-and-center for it all, taking the podium after the president, opening the following day’s press briefing and touring the Sunday news shows. Fact checks debunked his talking points on Paris and coal jobs.

But hey, they’re getting the word out: “Coal is back, baby!” And I’m concerned that even the gallons of ink and column inches spent correcting the record won’t have an equal or greater impact on the public’s understanding of either the economic headwinds facing Appalachian coal-mining communities or the urgency of reducing emissions.

An April poll by the University of Texas found that 64 percent of Americans believe the president can have an impact on the future of the U.S. coal industry — up from 55 percent six months ago. Meanwhile, the poll found that the percentage of Americans who believe climate change is “mostly due to natural forces” increased from 5 percent to 20 percent over the past year.

There are upsides, of course. Cities and states are taking the lead on climate action and ramping up clean energy, and not just those along the coasts. But it’s impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of the nation’s chief executive and his top associates pursuing a counterproductive agenda while putting off the challenges that coal-mining communities and those at risk of climate impacts face today.

One day soon, the maxim that coal isn’t coming back will be like saying “the climate is changing” — accepted by all with a few notable exceptions, you know, like the president of the United States. For now, though, it’s apparent that Appalachian communities can’t count on this White House to put forward any economic solutions beyond more resource extraction.

Brian is an environmental news junkie concerned with our lagging energy policy and revealing the true cost of coal on our health, the environment and the climate. He is Appalachian Voices' Director of Strategic Advancement.

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2 COMMENTS
  1. Lori Maloney says:

    Thank you for this thorough piece. Unfortunately most of the people making these terrible decisions won’t be alive to see the undeniable impacts of climate change. Or they would continue to label them as something else. I also wonder how much political motivation comes from ‘coal jobs’ as a vote-garnering talking point, versus the pocket-lining dollars of the coal lobby.

  2. Richard Phelps says:

    Brian, yet another insightful article ! Thanks !!

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