EPA HOSTS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF THE CLEAN POWER PLAN IN COAL COUNTRY
AS THE TRUMP administration continues down its warpath to eliminate environmental protections, it found a perfect venue for a planetary funeral party: the heart of coal country.
The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday concluded a two-day hearing on its plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan — a 2015 rule that formed the centerpiece of the U.S. plan to reduce its emissions in line with the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement — in Charleston, West Virginia. And the irony was not lost on people who live there.
“I think the EPA decided to hold these hearings in Charleston because we are right in the heart of the coalfields. If the EPA thinks it’s going to come here and only hear from people who oppose the plan, I think they’re wrong,” said Karan Ireland, a Democratic member of Charleston City Council and an advocate for bringing more solar energy to the state.
“You can’t just stereotype the typical West Virginian,” Ireland, who testified against the repeal on Tuesday, told The Intercept. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about here,” she said of the plan. “It’s absolutely true that there are communities that have been devastated by the loss of coal jobs. As a West Virginian and a person who enjoys electricity, I respect and honor our heritage as a coal-producing state. Having said that, I believe the science on climate change.”
This week’s hearing is so far the only scheduled chance for the public to comment on the repeal. The Obama-era EPA, by contrast, held 11 public listening sessions before proposing the CPP, in addition to four public hearings during a public comment hearing on the plan.
The roster of speakers at the hearing was full of repeal opponents, who came both from within and outside West Virginia. But even though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s foes may have outnumbered his supporters, coal magnates like Murray Coal CEO Robert Murray — who also testified on Tuesday — stocked the state capitol campus where the hearing was held with hard-hatted miners. Murray denied that he told his employees to come, but one of the miners at the event told the New Republic otherwise. It wouldn’t be the first time he got his employees to attend a political event — days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Murray sent a busload of miners up to Washington to support Pruitt at his Senate confirmation hearing.
With the coal industry on the decline nationwide, Ireland is one of many who are eager to see their state’s economy diversify and recover mining jobs that have already been lost. “I see the devastation that’s caused by a loss of jobs,” she said. “I don’t think that a mono-economy is the way to go.”
WHEN THE CPP was announced two years ago, it came under immediate fire from coal-, oil- and gas-producing states as an example of federal overreach. Twenty-eight state attorneys general — including then-Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt and West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey — sued the Obama administration over the plan shortly after it was announced, and it remained tied up in court proceedings in the last months of Obama’s presidency. In early October of this year, Pruitt announced his intention to officially repeal the plan.
The CPP, Pruitt said, “wasn’t about regulating to make things regular. It was truly about regulating to pick winners and losers, and they interpreted the best system of emission reduction is generating electricity, not using fossil fuels,” he said at his announcement of the repeal in Hazard, Kentucky. Yet many in West Virginia are familiar with the state and federal government doing exactly that in favor of coal production.
The CPP’s goal is to scale back U.S. power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a feat that depends on states coming up with their own individualized plans to reduce emissions along that timeline, working off a basic outline provided by the EPA that they would tweak and then submit to the agency. If a state failed to create plans along the parameters the CPP outlined, the federal government could move in to impose a plan. In that sense, states can still choose to follow-through on whatever plans they have already drafted or were planning to create. According to an analysis from the Rhodium Group, half of states are on track to beat or nearly meet their CPP targets, and 10 more could come close but just nearly miss the goal.
Still, even if the plan were to be implemented, it would need to be supplemented by other policies in order to cap emissions from other sources and sectors. While ambitious in the landscape of existing climate regulations, the CPP — fully implemented — would only have made a roughly 6 percent dent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and the power sector as a whole accounts for just around 30 percent of U.S. emissions. Supporters of the plan also hoped that it could have an outsized, indirect impact on emissions, creating a market signal for electric utilities to prioritize renewable generation. Even though it may never be implemented, the CPP might also have helped solidify the Paris Agreement by showing at least a baseline of ambition from the U.S., the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m not one who believes in the miraculous powers of the Clean Power Plan,” Ireland told The Intercept. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.” The CPP would allocate billions of dollars to helping coal communities transition off the fuel source through measures like grants and job training programs.
In West Virginia, a subsidiary of energy company FirstEnergy operating outside the state is looking to sell one of its coal-fired power plants to another FirstEnergy subsidiary within it, an electric utility. The deal would transfer the Pleasants Power Plant from an unregulated energy market — where it was unable to compete with other fuel sources — to West Virginia’s regulated market, essentially mandating that the state’s utility ratepayers foot the bill for a plant that has already proven uneconomical elsewhere. FirstEnergy made a similar move with the coal-fired Harrison Power Plant in 2013, which the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found cost West Virginia ratepayers an additional $164 million between October 2013 and June 2016.