Six years into his administration, President Obama, safely reelected, finally got around to issuing a climate change regulation to comply with a 2007 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring greenhouse gasses a pollutant that needed to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Who can forget the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s environmental profile in courage? It was a long time in coming and is already gone. The plan was held up by the Supreme Court in 2016 and now is being replaced by a weaker rule that will represent President Trump’s effort to end the “war on coal.” According to Juliet Eilperin of the Chicago Tribune:
“President Donald Trump plans next week to unveil a proposal that would empower states to establish emission standards for coal-fired power plants rather than speeding their retirement – a major overhaul of the Obama administration’s signature climate policy and one that could significantly increase the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere… the proposal would make only slight cuts to overall emissions of pollutants – including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – over the next decade. The Obama rule, by contrast, dwarfs those cuts by a factor of more than 12. The new proposal…could have enormous implications for dozens of aging coal-fired power plants across the country. EPA estimates the measure will affect more than 300 U.S. plants, providing companies with an incentive to keep coal plants in operation rather than replacing them with cleaner natural gas or renewable energy projects… Many utilities have moved to retire coal plants in recent years and switch to either natural gas or renewable power, which are now more economically competitive. But the proposed rule, which focuses on improving their heat efficiency and would allow for upgrades without triggering the kinds of pollution controls currently required under federal law, could shift that dynamic.”
The rule could “shift the dynamic,” but it probably won’t. As Timothy Puko of the Wall Street Journal observes: “…plummeting costs of cleaner fuels including natural gas, wind and solar in recent years have driven consumers and power companies away from coal so dramatically, they may blunt the proposal’s ultimate effect.”
The proposed rule will shift the politics to the state level where power utilities are regulated monopolies. As in other cases when businesses fight national regulation, they now move from the national certainty of the Clean Power Plan to fifty different sets of uncertain and unstable rules. While utilities whined that national regulation would increase their costs, and force them to switch from dirty expensive coal to cleaner, cheaper natural gas, the smart ones were doing it anyway. Well before Obama’s regulations were in effect, utilities were very busy switching from coal to gas. This trend has been obvious for about a decade and continues today. As the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported this past May:
“All regions of the country saw a decrease in electricity generation from coal compared to the previous year. Texas saw the largest decrease in electricity from coal, down 2,395 GWh compared to last May. All regions of the country, except for Florida, saw an increase in electricity generation from natural gas compared to May 2017. The Central region saw the largest increase in natural gas generation, up 6,363 GWh compared to the previous year.”
While Trump’s Dirty Power Plan will encourage some utilities to double down on coal, anyone thinking about a decades-long capital investment will look to natural gas as a surer, cleaner and less expensive option.
Trump’s effort to restore dirty energy to the American fuel mix is yet another symptom of his economic nostalgia, and longing for a time when our air was dirty but American muscle made our economy macho strong. The Administration’s effort to revive coal is an exercise in futility. Coal is a dying industry. A “war” and government regulation is not coal’s problem, it is doomed by cheaper and cleaner fuels. It’s really not complicated. Natural gas is the widely adopted American bridge fuel to renewables, and as battery and renewable technology advances, gas will be replaced as well. These transitions will take decades to accomplish as the planet continues to warm and Trump and his cronies will cement their record as the worst national administration on the environment since the issue appeared on the agenda of our political institutions. America’s greatness will indeed be demonstrated when we recover from this period of scientific ignorance and short-sighted environmental policy.
The President is fortunate that technology and the market are advancing faster than his policies can be implemented. I don’t think he would enjoy golfing while breathing particulate-laden air. We are all fortunate that during the 1970’s and into the 1980’s the fundamental structure of our bipartisan national environmental law was put into place and we have been benefiting from that enlightened era ever since. Despite the EPA’s reputation among the American right wing, the EPA is a relatively small and weak regulatory agency. It’s sometimes overly rigid approach to regulation is a sign of its institutional weakness, not its strength.
Most of the EPA’s powers have been delegated to the states and when those states are serious about environmental protection the laws are enforced and everyone knows they must comply. California and New York take environmental protection seriously. In California, Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been environmental leaders. In New York, Andrew Cuomo and George Pataki also understood the bipartisan appeal and economic value of a clean environment. In New York City, Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 integrated environmental protection with economic development and made sustainability a basic service of local government. In some, but not all cases, failed federal policy implementation has been replaced by successful state and local efforts. But not all states step up: Texas has been overrun by toxics, Florida is suffering from red tide, and Michigan let Flint’s children drink water tainted by lead. The political counterforce to the anti-regulatory ideology of America’s national government has been those local communities willing and able to fight to keep their air, water, and land free of poison.
America’s economy and population have grown dramatically since the EPA was created in 1970, and since 1980 this nation’s pollution levels have declined. Even greenhouse gasses are showing some signs of decline, although the reductions are coming far too slowly. Air pollution from cars has been reduced by pollution control technology and better fuel mileage. Pollution from power plants has been reduced by fuel switching and stack scrubber technology. Most importantly manufacturing is a declining part of America’s economy; 80% of our GDP is in the service sector. The high-value added part of the economy is in creating and designing stuff, not in making it. This is not to say that we don’t manufacture here. Twenty percent of our massive economy is still a lot of stuff. But most of us do not make things. We design, deliver, create, serve, help, teach, assist, manage, coordinate and analyze. A high-quality environment makes it possible to do all these things well, and it helps make America as great as it is.
A national push to promote renewable energy would help clean our air and over time mitigate climate change. The financial cost of adapting to climate change is large and will continue to grow. Devoting those resources to other uses might well enhance the quality of life for people here and everywhere. While I have a great deal of confidence that economic and technological forces will cause fossil fuels to be replaced by other sources of energy, it would be better if these forces were reinforced rather than opposed by America’s national government.
Other than Teddy Roosevelt, no American President has ever provided leadership on the environment and sustainability. Al Gore understood the issue but missed the White House by a thread. George W. Bush was clueless on climate change. Barack Obama understood environmental sustainability but first faced the economic crisis of the Great Recession, then confronted Tea-Party induced congressional gridlock and finally had to achieve reelection over the racist rants of birthers. Obama’s environmental legacy on climate and nature preservation had to take a back seat to the economy, health care and political survival. And today we have a President whose ideology and ignorance of the crisis of global sustainability causes him to favor fossil fuels over renewable energy. We are reduced to Trump’s Dirty Power Plan: an effort to turn back the clock, ignore climate science and resist the promise of cleaner, cheaper renewable energy.
It’s bad when America’s national government does little to advance renewable energy, it is far worse when they aggressively promote the most polluting fossil fuels they can find. The good news is that many states, cities, institutions, and corporations are moving in the other direction. Public understanding of climate change, threats to biodiversity, toxics, plastic pollution, and other environmental issues continues to grow. Younger people support environmental protection more fervently than older people and the grassroots, community-based political support for environmentalism is strong and deep. Trump may allow a state to build a dirty power plant, but the people living near that plant want no part of that outmoded and dangerous technology.