June 20, 2019
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Easing pollution regulations won’t save coal. Nothing will.

Chris Dorst | AP
Chris Dorst | AP
Coal miners listen to speakers during an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, at the state Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia.

While political attention has been focused on a Republican tax cut plan that needlessly cuts taxes for the wealthy and big corporations that will balloon the deficit, the Trump administration continues its press to undo a major pollution reduction law.

The sole public hearing regarding the administration’s plan to undo the Clean Power Plan was held this week in Charleston, West Virginia, the heart of coal country. The administration has convinced coal miners and coal companies that it will increase demand for the dirty fuel by easing environmental regulations, especially the Clean Power Plan, which called for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Here’s the problem: Coal is not coming back, not matter what the Trump administration does. For one, coal-fired power plants are closing as energy producers switch to cheaper — and cleaner — natural gas. “At least six plants that relied on coal have closed or announced they will close since Trump’s victory in November, including the main plant at the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest in the West. Another 40 are projected to close during the president’s four-year term,” The Washington Post reported in March.

The amount of coal used to generate electricity in the United States has dropped by more than half in the last decade. Easing environmental regulations is not going to change that reality.

Changes within the coal industry have led to reductions in employment that are not going to be reversed. Companies are switching from labor-intensive mining in Appalachia to mechanized strip mining in western states.

Given this reality, the two days of hearings in West Virginia were a sad display of playing on people’s nostalgia and hopes to achieve a political “win.” Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, made a career of fighting pollution reducing regulations from the Obama administration when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma. He also clearly favors business interests over the health and wellbeing of people. He found a welcome home in the Trump administration, which is intent on dismantling Obama administration rules and policies, even when they have improved the lives of Americans.

But, even in coal country, not everyone is on board with Pruitt’s push to scrap environmental regulations. He announced the EPA’s intention to rollback the Clean Power Plan in October, in Kentucky.

Stanley Sturgill is a former coal miner from Lynch, Kentucky, who suffers from black lung disease. He told the hearing committee he wanted the Clean Power Plan to remain in place, for the good of his children and grandchildren, The Weather Channel reported.

“Now to be realistic, do I really think that the administration cares what this old worn coal miner has to say?” Sturgill, 72, asked. “I don’t know. I really doubt it. But I had to be here, and as long as I can draw a breath, I’m going to keep working to fight climate change and protect the land and country I love.”

Sturgill is far from alone.

The EPA has received more than 77,000 online comments on the Clean Power Plan rollback. The vast majority of them favor keeping the rules, which were put on hold by a court order, in place. The comment period is open until Jan. 16.

When the pollution reduction rules were proposed by the Obama-era EPA in 2015, the agency held four public hearings — in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. — and heard from more than 1,600 speakers. Millions of written comments were filed in support of the plan.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has asked the EPA to hold a hearing in Maine. Attorneys general in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Virginia have also asked for hearings in their states. The EPA has not responded to their requests.

Sadly, we don’t expect to the EPA to listen to anyone other industry executives. Like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did with public comments about the administration’s still vague plans to shrink national monuments, expect Pruitt to downplay opposition to undoing the Clean Power Plan as a concerted liberal effort, while touting industry input as genuine.

Worst of all, the EPA is making false promises to justify nullifying needed pollution reduction rules.

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