October 10, 2017 Categories: Clean Energy Climate Change

Will Trump’s Dirty Power Plan Slow Clean Energy Progress?

NextGen Policy Center

by Milena Paez

In a word: Yes.

By signing a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took another major step to dismantle the environmental protections he has a sworn duty to uphold. I have seen this move coming ever since Donald Trump was elected, and certainly since he appointed Mr. Pruitt, who as Attorney General of Oklahoma had sued the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan and thirteen other public health protections. Nonetheless, the official act–and the flimsy rationale offered in an attempt to justify it–still feels like a punch in the gut.

Many commentators, and environmental and public health advocates have already articulated why this is the wrong thing to do. I won’t rehash them here. And NRDC’s David Doniger provides a preview of the legal briefs that he and others will file in an effort to block Pruitt’s action in court. These lawsuits are likely to succeed, but when the Administrator is hell-bent on giving polluters free rein, it is very difficult to force the EPA to act in a timely fashion.

Here I want to focus on the impact of Trump’s Dirty Power Plan. Repealing the Clean Power Plan is just a part of it, albeit an important one. On this topic, advocates and commentators have sent decidedly mixed messages. Is repealing the Clean Power Plan going to reverse the fortunes of the coal industry, and result in thousands of additional deaths from increased air pollution? Or is it irrelevant because climate leadership always emanated from mayors, governors, and businesses?

No, this move will not restore the coal industry to its previous status as the source of more than half of America’s electricity generation, or put millions of coal miners back to work. Employment in coal mining peaked at 863,000 in 1923, dropped below 100,000 in the early 1990s, and is unlikely to rise significantly above the 50,000 miners employed in 2016, no matter what Trump does. Meanwhile, there are 3 million workers employed in clean energy industries. A number that is growing every year and is posed to increase by over a half million if the Clean Power Plan goes into effect.  

Source: Plazak – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

But of all the big lies Scott Pruitt is telling to try to justify repealing the Clean Power Plan, perhaps the biggest is his claim that that he is doing it because regulations should not “pick winners and losers.” In reality, Trump’s Dirty Power Plan is all about putting a thumb on the scale to move coal, which has been losing for years, back into the winner’s’ column. Less than two weeks ago Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed a new rule that would pay coal plants to keep operating no matter how expensive they are. This proposed rule would completely overturn competition in the electricity generation market, making a mockery of any claim that the Trump Administration is seeking a level playing field. (The Clean Power Plan, by contrast, was technology neutral: It would have required reductions of carbon pollution from the power industry as a whole, but left it entirely up to states and power companies to determine the cheapest way to achieve those reductions.)

In addition to trying to subsidize coal plants, President Trump is very likely to raise the cost of clean energy by imposing tariffs on imported solar panels. Make no mistake: if Trump raises the cost of clean energy while subsidizing dirty energy enough, he can slow clean energy progress considerably in the United States, exacerbating climate change and undermining our economy as other countries seize the multi-trillion dollar economic opportunity that exists in clean energy.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has made it clear that it won’t go as far as Rick Perry’s completely indefensible proposal. But there is every reason to expect that a FERC controlled by Trump appointees will abandon the Commission’s traditionally neutral approach to regulating energy markets, and instead try to prop up uncompetitive coal plants. When Trump picks winners, we all lose.

What of all the governors, mayors and businesses who have declared that “We Are Still In” the Paris Climate Agreement and will meet its target regardless of what Trump does? There is no question that this movement is a powerful political rebuke to Trump and that action at the state and local level can mitigate some of the administration’s damage. The We Are Still In coalition represents almost half the population of the United States so far, and the best assessments to date indicate that these commitments will get America about halfway to the target pledged in Paris. We can and should improve on that by continuing to expand the coalition and pressing to turn political commitments into concrete action.

Source: New Climate Institute

Nonetheless, the Paris targets were already weaker than what the latest science shows is needed to minimize the risk of catastrophic climate change, and state and local action cannot completely replace federal leadership. With the Trump Administration’s Dirty Power Plan now in full view, it is clear that we don’t just have a lack of federal leadership. We have an Administration that is pushing as hard as possible in the wrong direction.

We can and must push back. We shall fight them in the courtrooms, we shall fight them in the Public Utility Commissions, we shall fight them in the town councils and state houses, we shall fight them at the ballot boxes; we shall never surrender.  


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