Trump’s War on Reality

On coal and climate change, the White House hopes dishonesty will win the day

Date: December 5, 2017

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This column is adapted from a post on Appalachian Voices’ Front Porch Blog.
Read the full-length original at appvoices.org/trumps-war-on-reality

By Brian Sewell

As President Trump stirs controversy and dictates policy in tweets, decisions at the agency level are drawing attention to his political appointees. That makes for a lot of noise, including on issues related to energy and the environment.

White House

Graphic by Cara Adeimy

Is it unusual that amid his deregulation spree, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt added a soundproof “privacy booth” to his office? Should we read much into Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s 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 absurdities offered daily by the president and powerful members of the executive branch — because they fit into a larger pattern. Ten months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the through-line of the White House’s strategy on coal and climate change is attacking regulations and then scrambling the evidence of why they are needed and what repealing them will accomplish.

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 a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a historic if modest step by the Obama administration to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

The repeal proposal is based on the legal argument that the EPA had overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. But those arguments are superficial compared to the core position of the Clean Power Plan’s most vocal opponents: that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and should not be regulated — that climate change is a hoax.

“Climate change has occurred over the cycle for decades,” Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, a friend and adviser to the president, told PBS NewsHour the day the repeal was announced. “The Earth has cooled for the last 19 years. It’s a natural cycle.” But it hasn’t, and it’s not. Sixteen of the hottest years on record have occurred this century, according to the World Meteorological Association.

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. 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 repeal proposal also downplays the public health benefits of reducing emissions of other air pollutants along with carbon dioxide. According to the repeal, there are no benefits to reducing particulate matter, or soot, below the threshold set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. But that limit reflects what is considered permissible, not necessarily what is safe.

Pruitt’s motive is clear: inflate the costs and discount the benefits of regulating carbon in order to weaken the economic case for climate action. All the better if people believe that meeting emissions goals would be impossible unless we live 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.

The Cost of Freedom

Over at the Energy Department, Rick Perry is looking beyond regulatory rollbacks to full-on market manipulation. In September, he directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a rule altering how markets value baseload resources — specifically coal and nuclear — to ensure “certain reliability and resilience attributes” are fully valued. Among those attributes is the ability to maintain a 90-day fuel supply, unquestionably ruling out an array of technologies and ignoring their contributions to a reliable and resilient electric grid.

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 frigid temperatures forced power plants offline, but he ignores that coal stockpiles froze in the cold snap and the way wind power helped prevent blackouts.

“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 and Commerce Committee in October. A week later, FERC issued its winter market assessment for the year, which 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 had 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?”

That laughable fallback is becoming familiar. 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 President Trump a plan to subsidize coal under the guise of national security, fearing the “absolute chaos” that could be in store.

But unlike the cost of freedom, the cost of Perry’s proposed rule can be measured. Based on his directive, ratepayers could be on the hook for eligible facilities’ operating and maintenance costs, and they could even be forced to guarantee the facilities’ owners and investors a profit. Multiple analyses based on different interpretations of the directive all put the annual cost in the billions of dollars.

Comments opposing the directive poured in during the public comment period, while supportive comments were fewer and reflected a much narrower set of interests. Bob Murray urged commissioners to approve the rule, describing his company 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 seems designed to appease him. In August, the Associated Press obtained a letter to the White House in which Murray accused the administration of rebuffing his 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.

“Disastrous consequences will occur for President Trump, the electric grid, and tens of thousands of miners [sic] will result if this is not immediately done,” Murray’s letter concludes.

FERC is unlikely to give in to Perry’s clumsy intervention into electricity markets, but the directive and his defense of it will be remembered as acts of service to the White House’s coal industry allies.

Pulling Up the Roots

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. Perry also supports the idea.

It would be naïve to think that such an effort would not 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 are not calling for a rigorous scientific debate about, say, the role climate change played in fueling wildfires or strengthening this year’s back-to-back-to-back hurricanes — though climate science is helping us better understand those forces, too. They are calling into question the fact that carbon dioxide emissions 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 University and former EPA science adviser, told HuffPost in June. “This could really be an embarrassment to the agency and to the nation.”

Groups such as the Heartland Institute, the nation’s preeminent climate-change-denial think tank, are pressuring the administration to go after the legal foundation that obligates the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The “endangerment finding,” which stems from a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, concludes that excess carbon dioxide levels pose a threat to humans. It could be wielded against Trump’s EPA in court by groups that support regulating emissions.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Pruitt said the endangerment finding “needs to be enforced and respected.” Now 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 an October interview with TIME. “I think by any definition of that process they didn’t.”

A plot to challenge the endangerment finding would be ambitious, equivalent to pulling up the roots of federal climate regulation planted nearly a decade ago. But 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.

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?

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that on top of the plants already slated for retirement, an additional 17 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants are unviable compared to other 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.

Although nationwide coal production and job losses 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 an October interview with Fox News. “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 — the White House’s environmental rollbacks had nothing to do with it. While Trump is prepared to take all the credit, Americans should remain skeptical about the messages coming from this administration. The swamp is only getting deeper.

The president nominated Andrew Wheeler to become Pruitt’s second-in-command. 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 (read The Appalachian Voice story on Gardner here). 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.

Kathleen Hartnett-White was chosen 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 the endangerment finding — she’s called CO2 a “harmless trace gas” and “plant food.”

Aided and abetted by a majority of congressional lawmakers, the Trump administration is
insulating itself from a broad range of scientific and economic perspectives. Meanwhile, the scientific and medical communities continue to sound 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.”

“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 write 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.”

The administration’s warped rhetoric isn’t helping mining communities much, either. For all the stage time he’s 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 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.

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.

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