Affordable Clean Energy Rules Or Not, Coal Stabbed In The Back Again

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President* Trump sailed into office on the promise of bringing back US coal jobs, and with this week’s announcement of the new Affordable Clean Energy rules it looks like he has taken his first concrete step toward realizing that goal. “Looks” is the operative word here. Top officials in his own administration have effectively pulled the rug out from under their own boss. Can you guess who? Three guesses!

1. US EPA Undercuts Affordable Clean Energy Rules

For those of you new to the topic, earlier this week the US Environmental Protection Agency released its new Affordable Clean Energy rules. The new rules are designed to roll back the Obama Administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which would have cut emissions from power plants.

The Clean Power Plan was hung up in court soon after it was proposed, so there is really nothing to roll back.

More to the point, the cost of competing fuels — natural gas and renewables — has been dropping over the past few years, and coal power plants have been closing at a rapid clip. That trend has continued under the Trump administration. Economic forces, technological progress and consumer preference are all working against coal.

That’s bad enough, and now it seems that EPA itself has been ginning up public opinion against the Affordable Clean Energy rules.

Our friends over at The New York Times spotted an EPA analysis of the new Affordable Clean Energy rules dated April 18 of this year, which attributes 1,400 additional premature deaths to the continued operation of coal power plants.

We’ll take The Times at its word — the 1,400 figure didn’t leap out on a quick read — but the analysis does devote an entire chapter to health impacts in grim, agonizing detail.

That would be Chapter 4 (page 138 in the pdf file), which directly compares the “foregone benefits” of replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rules.

Chapter 4 leads off with the money quote:

As compared to the standards of performance that it replaces (i.e., the 2015 Clean Power Plan) and as documented in Chapter 3, implementing the proposed rule is expected to increase emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and increase the level of emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health.

Chapter 4 is loaded up with charts, graphs and references, neatly summarized after the leadoff sentence:

These emissions include directly emitted fine particles sized 2.5 microns and smaller (PM 2.5 ), sulfur dioxide (SO 2 ), nitrogen dioxide (NOX ), and mercury (Hg). SO 2 and NOX are each a precursor to ambient PM 2.5 , and NOX emissions are also a precursor in the formation of ambient ground-level ozone.

If you can find the citation for that 1,400 figure, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, the admission of severe consequences for human health in EPA’s own analysis provides the numerous enemies of the Affordable Clean Energy rules with more ammunition to hold things up as the proposal winds its way through the approval process.

So, why didn’t Trump’s new EPA chief, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, take steps to neutralize the April 18 analysis if not bury it altogether?

Who knows! The bottom line is that Wheeler enabled national media (well, except for Fox News) to focus on severe national health impacts. That’s a sea change in framing for the media, which until now has typically focused on preserving a relatively small number of jobs in a relatively small number of states when the topic turns to coal.

2. Energy Department Up To Its Old Tricks

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has perfected the art of undercutting White House energy policy by dishing out all the good news about renewables, and this week he did not disappoint — with an interesting twist.

Instead of focusing only on renewable energy, Perry started off this week with a full court social media press highlighting another sector competing with coal, nuclear energy. Here’s a representative tweet from @Energy on August 23:

“Our nation’s fleet of 99 reactors is providing an incredible service to this country and helps keep our grid diverse and secure. ” – Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy.

Do tell! That tweet links to an op-ed under McGinnis’s name touting increased productivity from the nation’s nuclear fleet since 1990, despite a number of plant closures (the increase is due to a series of upgrades at remaining plants).

Nuclear energy is arguably not a sustainable solution, but in contrast to coal it is virtually emission free.

Perry closed out the week with a slam dunk for renewables, the simultaneous release of three major wind power updates. Here’s the happy recap from the Wind Technologies Market Report:

Highlights from this past year include larger, more powerful wind turbines and lower technology costs and wind power prices for on land and offshore applications, as well as U.S. distributed wind capacity crossing the 1 gigawatt (GW) threshold.

That report also notes that the US wind industry supports 105,000 jobs and is poised for future growth as the offshore wind sector begins to take shape.

The 2017 Distributed Wind Market report highlights the impact of micro wind turbines on two of President Trump’s areas of focus, US manufacturing and export:

U.S. manufacturers of small wind turbines and their supply chain vendors are located in 27 states.

Between 2015 and 2017, U.S.-based small wind turbine manufacturers accounted for more than $226 million in export sales.

Speaking of offshore wind, the Offshore Wind Report paints a rosy picture. Currently the US has only one offshore wind farm in operation, but robust growth is in sight:

The U.S. offshore wind project pipeline has reached a total of 25,464 MW of capacity across 13 states, including the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm commissioned in 2016.

None of this is surprising if you’ve been following the goings-on at the Department of Energy. Perry has already shepherded two coal-friendly initiatives through a path of ridicule and destruction (the notorious 2017 “grid study” and a short-lived proposal to make ratepayers foot the bill for uneconomic coal power plants), and now it looks like he’s helping EPA torch its own initiative, too.

3. Commander-In-Chief Not Helping

Trump himself didn’t do the Affordable Clean Energy rules any favors this week.

He did visit the coal state of West Virginia for a campaign-style rally, but as is his custom Trump did not leverage the opportunity to support his own policy.

Here’s the rundown from local CBS affiliate WYMT (follow the link and support local reporting):

Trump spent the first 20 minutes of his rally Tuesday at the Charleston Civic Center talking about ESPN and the NFL, introducing members of Congress in the audience and boosting the candidacy of Republican Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey is challenging Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

WYMT highlighted Trump’s attack on social media companies that have been banning right-wing accounts:

President Donald Trump says living with what he calls “fake news” is preferable to censorship on social media.

Digressing from the rally, WYMT took note of Trump’s activity on Twitter last weekend, in which he fired away at social media companies for “totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices.”

WYMT also took the opportunity to out one of those “voices,” Alex Jones, as a conspiracy theorist who is facing legal jeopardy for spreading malicious rumors about the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

To sum up, over and above the in-house sabotage from both EPA and DOE, Trump himself doesn’t seem all that interested in promoting the Affordable Clean Energy rules.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to utility companies to see how — or how not — they are adjusting their long range plans to accommodate the new rules, so stay tuned for more on that score.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo (screenshot): via US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3138 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey