As the Trump administration continues down its warpath to eliminate environmental protections, it found a perfect venue for a planetary funeral party: the heart of coal country.
The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday concluded a two-day hearing on its plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan — a 2015 rule that formed the centerpiece of the U.S. plan to reduce its emissions in line with the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement — in Charleston, West Virginia. And the irony was not lost on people who live there.
“I think the EPA decided to hold these hearings in Charleston because we are right in the heart of the coalfields. If the EPA thinks it’s going to come here and only hear from people who oppose the plan, I think they’re wrong,” said Karan Ireland, a Democratic member of Charleston City Council and an advocate for bringing more solar energy to the state.
“You can’t just stereotype the typical West Virginian,” Ireland, who testified against the repeal on Tuesday, told The Intercept. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about here,” she said of the plan. “It’s absolutely true that there are communities that have been devastated by the loss of coal jobs. As a West Virginian and a person who enjoys electricity, I respect and honor our heritage as a coal-producing state. Having said that, I believe the science on climate change.”
This week’s hearing is so far the only scheduled chance for the public to comment on the repeal. The Obama-era EPA, by contrast, held 11 public listening sessions before proposing the CPP, in addition to four public hearings during a public comment hearing on the plan.
The roster of speakers at the hearing was full of repeal opponents, who came both from within and outside West Virginia. But even though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s foes may have outnumbered his supporters, coal magnates like Murray Coal CEO Robert Murray — who also testified on Tuesday — stocked the state capitol campus where the hearing was held with hard-hatted miners. Murray denied that he told his employees to come, but one of the miners at the event told the New Republic otherwise. It wouldn’t be the first time he got his employees to attend a political event — days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Murray sent a busload of miners up to Washington to support Pruitt at his Senate confirmation hearing.
With the coal industry on the decline nationwide, Ireland is one of many who are eager to see their state’s economy diversify and recover mining jobs that have already been lost. “I see the devastation that’s caused by a loss of jobs,” she said. “I don’t think that a mono-economy is the way to go.”
When the CPP was announced two years ago, it came under immediate fire from coal-, oil- and gas-producing states as an example of federal overreach. Twenty-eight state attorneys general — including then-Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt and West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey — sued the Obama administration over the plan shortly after it was announced, and it remained tied up in court proceedings in the last months of Obama’s presidency. In early October of this year, Pruitt announced his intention to officially repeal the plan.
The CPP, Pruitt said, “wasn’t about regulating to make things regular. It was truly about regulating to pick winners and losers, and they interpreted the best system of emission reduction is generating electricity, not using fossil fuels,” he said at his announcement of the repeal in Hazard, Kentucky. Yet many in West Virginia are familiar with the state and federal government doing exactly that in favor of coal production.
The CPP’s goal is to scale back U.S. power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a feat that depends on states coming up with their own individualized plans to reduce emissions along that timeline, working off a basic outline provided by the EPA that they would tweak and then submit to the agency. If a state failed to create plans along the parameters the CPP outlined, the federal government could move in to impose a plan. In that sense, states can still choose to follow-through on whatever plans they have already drafted or were planning to create. According to an analysis from the Rhodium Group, half of states are on track to beat or nearly meet their CPP targets, and 10 more could come close but just nearly miss the goal.
Still, even if the plan were to be implemented, it would need to be supplemented by other policies in order to cap emissions from other sources and sectors. While ambitious in the landscape of existing climate regulations, the CPP — fully implemented — would only have made a roughly 6 percent dent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and the power sector as a whole accounts for just around 30 percent of U.S. emissions. Supporters of the plan also hoped that it could have an outsized, indirect impact on emissions, creating a market signal for electric utilities to prioritize renewable generation. Even though it may never be implemented, the CPP might also have helped solidify the Paris Agreement by showing at least a baseline of ambition from the U.S., the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m not one who believes in the miraculous powers of the Clean Power Plan,” Ireland told The Intercept. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.” The CPP would allocate billions of dollars to helping coal communities transition off the fuel source through measures like grants and job training programs.
In West Virginia, a subsidiary of energy company FirstEnergy operating outside the state is looking to sell one of its coal-fired power plants to another FirstEnergy subsidiary within it, an electric utility. The deal would transfer the Pleasants Power Plant from an unregulated energy market — where it was unable to compete with other fuel sources — to West Virginia’s regulated market, essentially mandating that the state’s utility ratepayers foot the bill for a plant that has already proven uneconomical elsewhere. FirstEnergy made a similar move with the coal-fired Harrison Power Plant in 2013, which the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found cost West Virginia ratepayers an additional $164 million between October 2013 and June 2016.
Emmett Pepper, executive director of Energy Efficient West Virginia, told The Intercept that while many people in his state remain skeptical about the idea of environmental protection, “there’s a growing willingness to recognize that regardless of what environmental regulations are out there, coal is getting more expensive and employment in the coal industry has been declining before environmental rules were put in place. I think people in Appalachia are starting to realize that we need to start thinking about additional ways to have economic development and economic activity.” West Virginia has lost 35 percent of its coal jobs between 2011 and 2016.
“While coal is going to continue to be part of the economy. I don’t think that anybody is under the illusion that it is going to be the main driver of the economy,” said Pepper, whose organization has not taken a stance on the CPP. “Whether or not the war on coal is a reality, we need to do something here to diversify our economy, because the coal jobs don’t seem to be coming back. We need new ways for people to make ends meet.”
Such jobs could come from any number of sources, he said, and there are already a number of retraining programs in the region dedicated to helping miners and other coal industry employees find work in other sectors. Pepper’s work focuses on energy efficiency and providing upgrades to homes that both create jobs and save their recipients money on their monthly power bills. The Appalachian Regional Commission — scheduled to receive $630 million in cuts if the Republicans’ tax package passes — provides a number of grants to spur economic development not linked to coal, like those for small business incubation. Ireland and Pepper both spoke of the need to slow West Virginia’s rapid population decline by making it a more attractive and economically viable place for young people, many of whom leave the state after graduating high school.
Over the past several years, coal has been largely outcompeted by natural gas, which has become a larger provider of Americans’ power. West Virginia still gets nearly 95 percent of its power from coal-fired generation, while just around a third of power comes from coal sources nationwide. Despite industry rhetoric about the war on coal, the U.S. Energy Information Agency has found that regulations “have played a secondary role” in coal’s recent decline,” which it further noted was “mainly a market-driven response to lower natural gas prices.” And while the CPP’s implementation would have prompted a more rapid phase-out of coal, repealing it — according to EIA projections — will only allow coal generation to flatline. Trump’s general boosterism for all manner of fossil fuels could further accelerate this process over the next several years. (Natural gas, to note, is far from a sum positive for the planet, and its production and consumption produces massive amounts of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.)
Despite or perhaps because of market trends, Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently proposed a round of new subsidies that would specifically benefit coal-fired and nuclear power plants, which would be added to the list of already generous direct and indirect subsidies the fossil fuel industry currently receives from the federal government. The proposal would further stand to disrupt the competitive wholesale power markets the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has developed over the last several decades, granting preferential treatment to specific fuel sources. “That would put a thumb on the scale in favor of coal of nuclear,” said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University’s College of Law, who also testified in favor of the CPP on Tuesday. “Speaking of picking winners and losers, that’s a good example of the government saying they don’t like the results being produced by a competitive wholesale market that’s producing lower electricity prices … because coal’s not able to compete.”
“There are a lot of jobs in that clean energy economy. They’re different jobs, but there’s a lot of growth to be had there, and it can put more dollars in people’s pockets,” Van Nostrand told The Intercept. He noted, too, that the West Virginia power sector’s overwhelming reliance on coal has triggered a rise in fuel prices over the last several years: “Right now on this coal path that we’re on, our electricity prices are rising.”
Were it to be implemented, he explained, the CPP would have created an infrastructure for West Virginia to manage a transition away from coal that is in many ways already happening thanks to market forces, as well as provide funds that would ease the burden on some of the communities likely to be hardest hit. “It forces the state to start having conversations about a more diversified energy portfolio,” he said, “It would force the state to do some more energy planning.”
“Now,” Van Nostrand said, “it’s just going to stop.”