When Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt announced last week that his agency would repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration’s allies in the Republican Party and the coal industry hailed it as a major blow against over-regulation. Applauding Pruitt’s move, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the plan to stop power plants from dumping unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere ”a vast, unlawful expansion of government authority” into the energy sector that had been “especially devastating” to coal country.
The reality is different. Republicans say that deregulating carbon pollution will revive the coal industry, but it won’t. The decades-long decline in coal jobs reflects larger economic forces: mechanization, tapped-out coal veins in Appalachia, and stiffer competition from increasingly cheap energy production from solar panels, wind turbines, and natural gas. In the last decade, coal’s share of the U.S. energy portfolio declined from half to one-third. This predates the Clean Power Plan, which has not yet even taken effect.
The Trump administration may not even be able to repeal the Clean Power regulation. Liberal states and environmental groups already are lining up to challenge Pruitt’s plans in court. The federal government is legally obligated to limit carbon pollution and coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source. Unless Republicans change the law, they may be forced to uphold the plan. Anyway, the Democrats will reinstate the rule if they win back control of the White House.
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Although Ryan called the Clean Power Plan a “signature climate rule” of the Obama administration, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act of 1970, which requires EPA to regulate pollutants that endanger human health. In 2007, the Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA that clear evidence — some of it produced by the government’s own scientists — demonstrated that carbon emissions cause global warming, which in turn causes dangers such as smog, deadly heat waves, and hurricanes. Therefore, the court ruled that EPA had to regulate carbon.
George W. Bush stalled on implementation until the end of his administration, and Barack Obama spent his first few years in office trying to craft legislation in which the government would create a cap-and-trade program to regulate carbon. Because the Senate failed to pass cap-and-trade, the Obama administration eventually came up with the Clean Power Plan.
Even if Pruitt were able to convince courts that the Clean Power Plan’s costs outweigh its benefits – an argument for which environmentalists have plenty of counter-evidence – the EPA would still be obligated to come up with a replacement carbon pollution regulation. Courts could order EPA to produce a regulation by a certain time and hold Pruitt in contempt of court if he fails to comply. That’s what happened to EPA administrator William D. Ruckelshaus in 1984 for not issuing standards on radioactive airborne materials.
Although other regulatory rollbacks might trigger apoplexy among green organizations, in this case they say they are certain of victory. Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, the largest U.S. environmental organization, while predicting that “Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt will go down in infamy for launching one of the most egregious attacks ever on public health,” also noted, “No matter who is in the White House, EPA is legally required to limit dangerous carbon pollution.”
To be sure, Pruitt’s plan represents a threat to the environment. Coal is the dirtiest major source of energy in the United States. In addition to contributing to climate change, it produces a host of toxins such as nitrous oxide and mercury and is a major source of smog. When it drafted the Clean Power rule, the EPA estimated that it would prevent 90,000 childhood asthma attacks, 300,000 missed work and school days, and 3,600 premature deaths per year by 2030. If the courts do let Pruitt repeal the rule, it could slow the transition away from coal, causing dirtier air and more global warming.
However, the only way to lastingly prevent carbon regulation would be to revise the Clean Air Act to stipulate that its standards do not apply to carbon. Republicans in Congress have tried to do just that. Their most recent bill, released in February, immediately attracted over 100 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans.
Preventing carbon regulation would be extremely unpopular. Polls show large majorities of the public, sometimes including a majority of Republican voters, support regulating climate pollution.
As David Doniger, director of the climate program at the left-leaning Natural Resources Defense Council and a former EPA official, told me in April for an article I wrote in The Washington Post: “After the Bush administration...the Clean Air Act was still in effect and the Obama administration started to set things right. It’s not a very satisfying thing to think of this as a 30-years war, but it’s longer than a four-year battle.”
Trump does have considerable political capital invested in the battle. In March, he issued an executive order directing Pruitt to get rid of the Clean Power rule. As a candidate, the president repeatedly promised to end his predecessor’s “war on coal” and put the miners back to work.
However, market realities will make this promise impossible to keep as coal’s slide continues. In 2016, natural gas passed coal as the leading source of American electricity, a shift the U.S. Energy Information Agency finds is “mainly a market-driven response to lower natural gas prices.” There’s no sign of the fracking-driven cheap gas boom abating. In fact, Trump hopes to boost it by deregulating fracking on federal land. Whether governments will cut carbon pollution swiftly enough to stave off climate catastrophe remains an open question. But laws in place from a time when Republicans were more moderate will ultimately ensure that carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants is regulated — insufficient and late though it may be — and coal’s foreordained death will hardly have been slowed at all.
Ben Adler is an editor for Commentary at Reuters. He has previously been a reporter at Politico, The Nation and Grist and an editor at Newsweek. @badler
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.