Front Porch Blog

Trump’s war on reality

To revive coal and ignore climate change, the White House hopes dishonesty and sheer persistence will win the day.

The Trump administration is using the bully pulpit and the federal bureaucracy to construct an alternate reality where coal is still king — or at least where it can be made great again. Graphic by Cara Adeimy.

Editor’s Note: It has been one year since the 2016 presidential election, when it became clear that Donald Trump would get the chance to make good on his improbable campaign promises. In this extended Front Porch Blog feature, Brian Sewell explores how closely the Trump administration has adhered to the coal industry’s agenda.

Credit where credit’s due: the Trump administration knows how to create crises to distract public attention from much more real and urgent challenges.

As the president stirs controversy and dictates policy in tweets, decisions at the agency level are drawing heightened attention to the words and actions of cabinet officials and department heads. With Trump’s appointees that makes for a lot of noise, including on issues related to energy and the environment.

Is it unusual that, amid his deregulation frenzy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt added a $25,000 soundproof “privacy booth” to his office? Should we wonder how Energy Secretary Rick Perry came to deliver a motivational speech to a National Mining Association gathering at the Trump International Hotel where he touted coal’s part in the United States’ “unprecedented clean energy revolution?”

We should take note of the endless absurdities offered daily by the president and powerful members of the executive branch — because they fit into a larger pattern. Nine months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the through-line of the White House’s strategy on coal and climate change is attacking existing regulations and then scrambling the evidence of why they are needed and what repealing them will accomplish.

Interest in a concept known as “gaslighting” has surged alongside Trump’s political rise. The idea is that a sharper vision of reality is blurred when the White House repeats falsehoods over and over again, that the truth can crack under the weight of lies. Well, the Trump administration’s commitment to greenhouse gaslighting runs deep.

Climate change denial and anti-scientific posturing are on full display, but the White House also routinely bungles energy economics and fabricates arguments about coal’s importance to preserving national security. Public health experts, scientists, economists, environmental lawyers, electric grid operators, energy industry associations, elected officials at every level of government and countless civil servants have questioned the administration’s actions. It doesn’t seem deterred.

The damage caused by an undying allegiance to the coal industry’s agenda could span generations, but it begins by robbing us of the conversation we should be having today. The pattern continued in October with Pruitt’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan and Perry’s defense of a rule that would disrupt power markets in an attempt to keep coal competitive.

Erasing the Case for Climate Action

President Trump and his political appointees have pronounced the “war on coal” dead on multiple occasions. But as of Oct. 10, “the war on coal is over” again, as Pruitt told a crowd in eastern Kentucky. That day, Pruitt unveiled the proposed repeal of the federal Clean Power Plan, a historic if modest step by the Obama administration to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants and speed the country’s transition to cleaner energy.

We’ve written about Clean Power Plan’s rocky existence, including how states in our region reacted to the plan and what happened when it got tied up in the courts. But what’s important to know here is how the coal industry, members of Congress and state attorneys general like Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma’s AG, effectively painted it as a fatal blow to coal and predicted devastating consequences across the U.S. economy.

Whether or not that message is accurate — it’s not — is less relevant than its resonance with Americans who were warned constantly that the Clean Power Plan would result in skyrocketing electricity costs and the loss of millions of jobs. Those kinds of distortions have become standard procedure in the crusade against environmental and public health protections of all kinds.

Any legitimate attempt to protect coal’s market share would require taking aim at natural gas, not just renewables and definitely not just environmental regulations. Everyone knows that, but it’s in the interest of folks like Pruitt to pretend otherwise.

The Clean Power Plan repeal proposal itself centers on the legal argument that Pruitt and others used to battle the plan in court over the past two years. Basically, the argument goes, the EPA overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act by attempting to regulate emissions system-wide rather than at individual plants. The case was headed for the U.S. Supreme Court until Trump moved into the White House.

But again, while those are important facts of the case, they’re superficial compared to the core position of the Clean Power Plan’s most vocal and influential opponents: that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and should not be regulated — that climate change is a hoax.

Above is Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, a friend and adviser to the president, oscillating between conspiracy theories and nonsense when asked whether carbon emissions should be regulated. Murray is a climate denier’s denier, perfectly willing to go on TV and regurgitate the most thoroughly debunked talking points in the global warming denial toolkit.

“The Earth has cooled for the last 19 years. It’s a natural cycle,” Murray says later in the PBS NewsHour interview. It hasn’t and it’s not. According to the World Meteorological Association, 16 of the hottest years on record have occurred this century. If credible news programs like NewsHour can’t call out that level of denial at least they correctly identify Murray as the owner of one of the nation’s largest coal companies.

Trump and Murray bonded over coal during the campaign. But while the president has demonstrated his own extreme level of denial, don’t expect Pruitt to be so blatant. He relies on secrecy, smoke and mirrors to carry out his agenda and understands the calculation required to forestall carbon regulations for as long as possible.

A week before Pruitt signed the Clean Power Plan repeal, POLITICO reported that his agency’s assessment of the plan’s costs and benefits was expected to be fundamentally different than that of Obama’s EPA. True to form, Trump’s EPA sees a world where some air pollution is safe and the costs of climate change are negligible.

Take the metric known as the “social cost of carbon,” an approximate determination of the cost imposed on society per ton of carbon emitted or, alternatively, the societal savings from pollution that is prevented. There is no consensus on such a difficult-to-define number and most estimates range from around $30 per ton to as much as $200. Trump’s EPA puts the figure around $1.

The EPA nearly zeroed out the social cost of carbon by departing from previous interpretations to only consider potential impacts to the United States, despite the fact that carbon emissions don’t respect borders. Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who convened a working group to determine the social cost of carbon in 2009, called the EPA’s decision to undercut it without any explanation “the essence of arbitrariness.”

The repeal proposal also downplays the benefits to public health of reducing emissions of other air pollutants along with carbon dioxide. According to the repeal, the benefit of reducing airborne particulate matter, or soot, has a floor — in this case, the threshold set by the EPA under the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. But that limit is considered permissible, not necessarily safe, as John Walke, an attorney and clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains in depth here.

Pruitt’s motive is clear: inflate the costs and discount the benefits of regulating carbon to weaken the economic case for climate action. All the better if people believe that meeting targets set by the Clean Power Plan would be impossible unless we lived in the cold and dark. Of course, that was never the case. Most states are already on track to meet or exceed the targets, according to a Rhodium Group analysis.

CO2 reductions over the past decade put Clean Power Plan targets within reach. Courtesy of Rhodium Group.

The EPA is selling coal’s side of the story — a story that’s entering a new chapter after a fictionalized account of the past eight years. It’s about how the Trump administration promised a miraculous comeback and came up short, and how it sold out only to find itself stuck between the desire to give the coal industry everything and the reality that it will never be enough.

Only Coal Can Save Us Now

“You see a pretty powerful message. Disavow any effort to control greenhouse gases in the power sector, and instead, intervene in the market to promote coal,” Harvard Law Professor Jody Freeman told the New York Times. “It’s a wow.” Part of that “wow” is Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent foray into electricity markets on behalf of coal.

In September, Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a rule altering how markets value baseload resources — coal and nuclear specifically — to “ensure that certain reliability and resilience attributes” are properly valued. Among those attributes is the ability to maintain a 90-day on-site fuel supply, unquestionably ruling out an array of technologies and ignoring their contributions to a reliable and resilient electric grid.

The proposed rulemaking came on the heels of an Energy Department study, completed at Secretary Perry’s request, which was based on the assumption that coal retirements and incentives for cleaner energy sources were disrupting the reliability of the electric grid and pondered what to do about it.

“There are significant changes occurring within the electric system that could profoundly affect the economy and even national security,” Perry wrote earlier this year in a memo calling for the grid study. But after the final report concluded that the country’s energy mix is more diverse than ever and that reliability has been maintained despite coal retirements, Perry was forced to give up the game.

To be fair, the final report stressed that, in addition to providing reliability, markets “must evolve to better address resilience.” It called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to wade into market design and make recommendations on how to value the “essential reliability services” of what it calls “fuel-secure” baseload resources.

But the next month, Perry used his authority to preempt the commission and fast-tracked a rule to provide cost recovery to the investors and owners of power plants being pushed to the economic margins. In doing so, he risks compounding the problem he set out to solve. A letter from a bipartisan group of former FERC chairs to current commissioners describes how Perry’s proposed rule would “disrupt decades of substantial investment made in the modern electric power system.”

“Subsidizing resources so they do not retire would fundamentally distort markets,” the group wrote. “The subsidized resources would inevitably drive out the unsubsidized resources and the subsidies would inevitably raise prices to customers. Investor confidence would evaporate and markets would tend to collapse.”

Perry says the rule would address the problem of fuel-supply disruptions, which would be helpful if fuel-supply disruptions were a problem to begin with. He points to the 2014 Polar Vortex, when electricity demand spiked as frigid temperatures forced power plants offline, and warns that “we’re probably going to have another one.” He leaves out that coal stockpiles froze in the cold snap and ignores the way wind power rose to the occasion to prevent blackouts.

“I think you take costs into account, but what’s the cost of freedom?
— Rick Perry

But real facts be damned, Perry is sticking with alternative ones. “I don’t think any of you want to stand up in front of your constituents and explain why the decision had to be between turning our lights on and keeping our family warm,” he told members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee last month. A week later, FERC issued its winter market assessment for the year and concluded that electric capacity is adequate in every region.

When the fear of rolling blackouts did not satisfy committee members, Perry invoked freedom. Asked by New York Rep. Paul Tonko if he considered the rule’s cost, Perry replied, “I think you take costs into account, but what’s the cost of freedom? What’s the cost to keep America free?”

It’s a laughable fallback, but one that’s becoming familiar. Scott Pruitt has said that utilities need “solid hydrocarbons” on site in the event of an attack on our infrastructure. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice pitched a plan to subsidize coal mined in the eastern United States under the guise of national security, fearing the “absolute chaos” that could be in store. Coal keeps the lights on and, now, I guess, it keeps us safe.

But unlike the cost of freedom, the cost of Perry’s proposed rule can be measured. In his directive to FERC, Perry instructed commissioners that “compensable costs shall include, but not be limited to, operating and fuel expenses, costs of capital and debt, and a fair return on equity and investment.” So, not only would ratepayers be on the hook for eligible facilities’ operating costs, they could be forced to guarantee them a profit.

Multiple analyses based on different interpretations of Perry’s directive all put the annual cost imposed on ratepayers in the billions of dollars. The firm Energy Innovation found costs totaling between $2.4 and $10 billion per year. The market monitor for PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest regional grid operator, says the rule could cost up to $288 billion over the next decade. Whatever the cost, trading the Clean Power Plan for an ill-fated attempt to prop up coal would come with an enormous price tag and few benefits.

The prognosis for the rule, at least in the form proposed by Perry, looks bleak. Comments opposing the directive poured in during the public comment period. PJM Interconnection criticized the rule for being anti-competitive. The attorneys general of 10 states including North Carolina argued that finalizing it would violate federal law and FERC commissioners are expressing skepticism ahead of their December deadline.

Supportive comments were filed by a narrower set of interests: industries that would directly benefit from the rule and individuals with a vested interest in seeing those industries get a leg up. Trump adviser and Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray urged the commission to approve the rule, describing Murray Energy as “entirely dependent on the continuing viability and operation of coal-fired generation in the United States.”

It’s no wonder Murray is on board since the rule is designed to appease him. In August, the Associated Press obtained a letter to the White House in which Murray accused the administration of breaking a promise. The Energy Department had rebuffed Murray’s request that it issue an emergency order to keep his mines operating and the coal plants they supply running. He again implored the White House to act.

“This urgent action, now ordered by President Trump several times, has not occurred,” Murray’s letter concludes. “Disastrous consequences for President Trump, our electric power grid, and tens of thousands of coal miners will result if this is not immediately done.”

A letter signed by Bob Murray urged the Trump administration to declare a grid emergency.

Already flimsy and transparent, the veil masking Perry’s political motivations has been stripped away. FERC is unlikely to give in to his clumsy intervention into electricity markets, but it could meet him somewhere in the middle. Whatever happens, the directive and Perry’s defense of it will be remembered as acts of service to the White House’s coal industry allies.

Pulling Up the Roots

The executive branch has lost all credibility as an impartial or even pragmatic source of information on the reality of climate change, the challenges facing coal and where we go from here. That will be near impossible to undo. But the coal industry has never enjoyed this level of influence before, and it’s prepared to exhaust all options in a last-ditch effort to rewrite its future.

For the White House to do its part, it needs millions of Americans to believe that what’s good for Bob Murray is good for the country. But it’s banking on a belief that enough people aren’t paying attention and that enough of those who are can be deceived. They hope dishonesty and sheer persistence can win the day.

Federal agencies like the EPA and Energy Department can quietly weaken enforcement, censor climate data, defund research, deploy wonky rulemakings and regulatory impact analyses, and generally use the federal bureaucracy to their advantage. But when scrutiny is impossible to avoid — as in the cases of the Clean Power Plan repeal and Perry’s effort to keep uncompetitive coal plants online — the White House’s reasoning never seems to hold up.

The ultimate expression of Murray and the Trump administration’s shared strategy could still be ahead. For months, Pruitt has hinted at a plan to launch a “red team, blue team” critique of climate research pitting climate scientist against climate skeptic to finally get to the bottom of this thing. Perry also supports the idea and made a less than compelling case for it during an exchange with Minnesota Sen. Al Franken in June.

It would be naive to think that such an effort wouldn’t further politicize the issue and create false equivalencies between decades of accepted mainstream science and the views of a handful of holdouts. That’s the whole point of the exercise.

To be clear, Pruitt and Perry aren’t calling for a rigorous scientific debate about, say, the role climate change played in strengthening this season’s back-to-back-to-back hurricanes or fueling wildfires — though climate science is helping us better understand those forces, too. They’re calling into question the fact that emissions of carbon dioxide are a primary contributor to rising temperatures around the globe.

“If you’re going to make the case that climate change is not happening and that human activities are not influencing climate, you’ve got a really tough scientific row to hoe there,” Thomas Burke, a health professor at Johns Hopkins and former EPA science adviser, told HuffPost in June. “This could really be an embarrassment to the agency and to the nation.”

To staff up the red team, Pruitt is recruiting from the ranks of the Heartland Institute, which rose to prominence by allying with Philip Morris to cast doubt on the health risks of smoking and has since become the nation’s preeminent climate denial think tank. The group caught headlines earlier this year for sending tens of thousands of K-12 teachers an unsolicited book called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.”

The Heartland Institute has been preparing for this moment. It huddled in Washington, D.C., in June for a “red team briefing” to talk strategy and walked away with some promising ideas. A leaked email shared by E&E News captures some highlights including “reach the President by tweeting on the issue” and “sue a company for not increasing CO2 emissions, force a court to consider the evidence on CO2 benefits.” Ultimately, Heartland President Joseph Bast wrote, “we need to be able to say ‘EPA is reconsidering whether CO2 is a pollutant.’”

This charade is likely a means to an even more dangerous end. Groups like the Heartland Institute and other White House allies are pressuring the administration to go after the legal foundation that obligates the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re losing patience. The “endangerment finding,” as it’s known, is the result of exhaustive research and it could be wielded against Trump’s EPA in court by groups that support regulating emissions.

A plot to challenge the endangerment finding would be ambitious beyond anything the White House has done to mollify Bob Murray, equivalent to pulling up the roots of federal climate regulation planted nearly a decade ago. But it has been in crosshairs since 2009 and overturning it is near the top of Murray’s to-do list. In June, he told E&E News that he expected the endangerment finding to come under fire before the end of 2017. “They’re going to start getting a lot of scientific people in to give both sides of the issue,” he said.

Pruitt’s challenge is to keep his allies happy in the belief that the endangerment finding is litigable while putting off the EPA’s legal obligation to replace the Clean Power Plan. During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt told senators that the endangerment finding “needs to be enforced and respected.” Nine months later and after a lot of flak from groups like the Heartland Institute, he doesn’t sound so sure. “Did this agency engage in a robust, meaningful discussion with respect to the endangerment that CO2 poses to this country?” Pruitt asked rhetorically in a recent interview with TIME. “I think by any definition of that process they didn’t.”

Pruitt and Perry say that what’s most important is having an informed conversation about climate science and coal’s future. But a rigid ideology that casts doubt on accepted science and invariably leads the White House to side with polluters exposes their emphasis on continuing the debate for what it is: a cover for continuing to do nothing, or worse.

Clearing the Air

Ending the “war on coal” over and over again works as a talking point and an applause line. But what happens when rules to safeguard clean air and water are undone, communities are left more vulnerable to climate change and coal plants still close?

The latest major announced retirements came from Perry’s home state. The Texas-based utility Luminant revealed plans in early October to shutter the ‘70s-era Monticello Power Plant, one of the largest coal plants in the nation’s most-carbon emitting state. Why would such a prolific fossil fuel consumer look beyond coal as President Trump is in the midst of saving it?

“It’s purely economic,” a spokesperson for Luminant’s parent company told The Dallas Morning News. “This is a coal plant operating in a market that’s flooded with cheap natural gas.”

It won’t be the last. A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, on top of the coal plants already slated for retirement, an additional 20 percent of the nation’s coal fleet is uneconomic compared to other energy sources. The states with the greatest share of coal capacity at risk — West Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — have all historically relied on coal mined from nearby mountains.

From “A Dwindling Role for Coal” (2017). Courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists.

Although coal production and job losses at the national level have stabilized compared to recent years, the comeback could be fleeting. And the regional picture is even more complex. While consumption of thermal coal from the western Powder River Basin has seen an uptick, it has continued to slide back east where the industry is buoyed by more volatile markets for metallurgical coal. None of that seems to matter to the president, who has already planted a victory flag in Appalachia.

“I’ve turned West Virginia around because what I’ve done environmentally with coal,” Trump said in Fox News interview. “And everyone’s saying ‘I can’t believe it,’ because they were having such problems.”

That’s not accurate, and even if it were it would be both an exaggeration and an oversimplification. The price fetched by metallurgical coal doubled between the final quarter of 2016 and the first of 2017 and natural gas prices saw a slight bump. The White House’s environmental rollbacks had nothing to do with either. While Trump is convinced the rebound is permanent and prepared to take all the credit, we should remain skeptical of the messages on coal and climate change coming from this administration. The swamp is only getting deeper.

In October, the president nominated Andrew Wheeler to become Pruitt’s second-in-command at EPA. As recently as August, Wheeler was registered as a lobbyist for Murray Energy. To lead the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the White House tapped Steven Gardner, a mining engineer best known for attacking the agency over the Stream Protection Rule. David Zatezalo, Trump’s pick to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is a former coal executive whose company ran afoul of the agency and retaliated against a whistleblower for exposing safety violations. Bob Murray urged Zatezalo to come out of retirement for the job.

With coal-friendly regulators waiting in the wings, the administration can turn its attention back to undermining climate science. Trump chose Kathleen Hartnett-White to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which offers guidance to federal agencies and the president on a variety of environmental policy decisions. Hartnett-White is an outspoken critic of federal environmental laws and the endangerment finding — she has called CO2 a “harmless trace gas” and “plant food.” She’ll be at home working with Pruitt, who recently purged the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board to give more influence to regulated industries.

Aided and abetted by a majority of congressional lawmakers, the Trump administration is reinforcing the walls of its echo chamber and insulating itself from a broad range of scientific and economic perspectives. In recent weeks alone, the scientific and medical communities have sounded the alarm about present and future climate threats. It’s doubtful the message will break through.

An expansive report released on Nov. 3 as part of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment concludes with confidence that human activities are “the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” It stresses that “there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

Global annual average temperature and surface temperature increases for the period 1986–2016 relative to 1901–1960. From the Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment.

“There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible,” the report’s authors wrote in the executive summary. A short response to the report by the White House reads in part, “The climate is changing and has always changed.”

Along with the chronic harm that could come with ignoring climate change, the administration’s warped rhetoric might lead to more acute suffering in mining communities where some take the president at his word. For all the stage time at rallies and ceremonious executive order signings he has devoted to coal, Trump has not even spared 140 characters to champion efforts to diversify Appalachia’s economic base — despite the inspiring initiatives garnering national attention. When he does speak up for “our great clean coal miners,” the only future he sees for them is one where they work in the mines.

The bully pulpit can be used to inspire, stunt or send shockwaves through the country’s imagination. Trump is using it to construct an alternate universe where coal is still king or at least where it can be made great again. In the reality the rest of us live in, the White House’s actions won’t create prosperity nearly as much as they will cause pain. And when future generations look for someone to blame, the smoke will have already cleared.

Trump’s vast greenhouse gaslighting operation has reversed climate action in Washington and rebranded the United States as a climate villain on the world stage. But coal’s dominance will continue to fade and the transition to cleaner forms of energy will forge ahead in spite of the president’s delusion. We should remember that too, in case he tries to take credit for it down the road.

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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