Trump, the EPA, and the Clean Power Plan
By George Harvey
Donald Trump has acted to trash the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). For some of us who cherish Mother Earth and our own progeny, this was a truly frightening action. Some have gone so far to call it a “planetary death warrant.” But please, do not despair. The issue is not over. More to the point, Donald Trump’s actions may only serve to highlight his own futility, which is looking increasingly extreme.
To understand this, we might first look at why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the plan. It did not do this to kill coal or push renewable energy. In fact, it tried to avoid regulating carbon emissions altogether. It created the plan because it was ordered to regulate carbon dioxide emissions after the Supreme Court decided carbon dioxide is a pollutant, in the 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. Neither doing away with the CPP nor defunding the EPA will get Trump off the hook on this.
With that bit of background, we can start to appreciate the comedy of the situation. Because of the court’s decision, neither Scott Pruitt nor Donald Trump can simply do away with the CPP. If they are to do anything at all, it must be to replace it with something that will effectively regulate carbon emissions. And Pruitt’s opinion that climate change is not driven by carbon dioxide is inconsequential. In taking over the EPA, he assumed responsibility for dealing with carbon emissions under a federal court order. Addressing this issue, Ben Longstreth, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, said Donald Trump’s orders are “legally not all that relevant.”
Another part of the problem with undoing the CPP is that it was too modest to begin with. This can be seen simply by looking at the states that have sued to stop it. In some cases, their goals were so easy, that they did not really need to try much to achieve them. Arkansas, for example, entered the suit, but is already ahead of schedule on reaching its CPP goal because inefficient coal-burning plants were replaced by much less expensive wind power.
Colorado has done even better. While its Attorney General joined the suit to stop the plan, the state went ahead on solar and wind power under the guidance of its governor, John Hickenlooper. Now he has announced that Colorado has already met the plan’s goals.
Scientists are arguing that the CPP does not reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to address climate change. The Trump Administration could theoretically try to get the Supreme Court to reverse its position by arguing that carbon-driven climate change is not happening, but over the history of the Supreme Court, it has rarely revisited old cases. Furthermore, the administration would have to make their argument before justices whose background includes a time when Richard Nixon was president. Remember Richard Nixon? He was the conservative Republican who created the EPA.
The greatest problem with opposition to the plan can be revealed by examining Colorado’s success. At the very time that carbon emissions make fossil fuels problematical, renewable power is making the economics of fossil fuels increasingly marginal, in the case of natural gas, and inexcusable, in the case of coal.
The economic forces against fossil fuels come from a “perfect storm” of factors favoring the competitive position of renewable power. The cost of onshore wind power has fallen well below that of combined cycle natural gas, the least expensive fossil fuel available. The cost of solar power is increasingly making it competitive not only with fossil fuels, but with onshore wind power. Offshore wind power has become less expensive than nuclear and has fallen below the cost of coal, on average. The job market for renewable power is the strongest in the nation, creating several jobs for every one lost by the fossil fuels industries.
The problem with intermittent power from solar and wind has become irrelevant, with a number of developments in the field of energy storage. The problem with intermittency becomes even more irrelevant with the introduction of virtual power plants, in which computers can match production precisely with demand, which coal and combined cycle natural gas cannot do.
Finally, the cost of failure to deal with climate change is becoming increasingly clear to just about every big business except a few in the fossil fuels industry. On the same day Trump signed his executive order trashing the CPP, Anheuser-Busch announced it would be powered 100% by renewable energy sources. And a long list of companies, state and city governments, and other organizations has since announced they would stay the course on climate change. Utilities will continue closing coal-burning power plants, and mines will continue to close.
So ultimately, Trump and Pruitt cannot succeed in putting coal workers back to work. The market is not willing to buy expensive power or fuel when better cheap power is available. And whatever plan they put together will not keep natural gas or oil alive for the same reason, because the cost of solar and wind with battery backup has already become competitive with natural gas and is not subject to potential fuel shortages.
Astonishingly, part of this sad comedy is that the Trump Administration is attempting to eliminate economic programs designed to aid laid-off coal workers. This is in keeping with the heartless economics of what is euphemistically called a “free market.” It is a market that does not have a capacity to put values on human life, human suffering, the environment, or even long-term planning for corporate sustainability, as it focuses narrowly on making sure that the people who finance it have good profits in the next quarter.
The coal miners will not go back to work. Instead, the Republicans they elected to congress will need to explain to them not only what went wrong but why the federal government abandoned them. And to avoid taking the blame, they will put it on Donald Trump.