If the “war on coal is over,” as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt declared this week, then the war on breathing has been launched. There is virtually nothing about the Trump administration’s decision to overturn the Clean Power Plan, the EPA rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, that makes sense — not the claim of reviving the coal industry, not the promise of utility savings and especially not the suggestion that Americans stand to benefit from such a short-sighted, science-averse and destructive policy change.
Burning coal produces large quantities of air pollution, including mercury, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. And that’s not even counting the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. That isn’t conjecture, it’s scientific fact. The only way electricity created by burning coal can be regarded as “cheap” is to ignore these human costs — to effectively subsidize the grid by ignoring premature death, asthma attacks and billions in medical expenses. And even then, coal-fired power is a dubious pursuit given the rise of natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable energy alternatives.
None of this is a surprise, of course. President Donald Trump promised to withdraw President Barack Obama’s signature environmental initiative back when he was a candidate looking to energize supporters in coal-producing states, and Mr. Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued to overturn the Clean Power Plan, was just the true believer to manipulate the data and get the job done. Given all the clownishness and incompetence demonstrated by the current administration, it’s a shame that this is one of the few significant campaign pledges Mr. Trump has managed to fulfill — to make America’s skies gray again.
The good news is that it’s beyond the power of the EPA to turn back the clock entirely. States like Maryland have put in place their own restrictions on power plants that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by levels equal to, and in some cases exceeding, those in the Clean Power Plan. Now it’s up to Gov. Larry Hogan and the state legislature to stand behind Maryland’s recently-upgraded mandate to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and to pressure the Trump administration to get back on board. The state is already suing the EPA over the agency’s failure to regulate power plant emissions from upwind states like Kentucky and West Virginia that contribute heavily to Maryland’s worst air pollution woes; it ought to legally challenge the withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan as well.
Let’s also dispense with the nonsense that the Trump administration is creating jobs. Coal isn’t the future, clean energy is. Maryland has more jobs for hotel concierges (645) than it does in coal (350). And this decision won’t help the U.S. invest in the future — such as solar, wind or energy efficiency — but instead will force Americans to pay for the consequences of pollution, from mercury-laden fish to more Code Red air quality days when conditions are so dire that young people, those with respiratory diseases and the elderly are advised to remain indoors. Who wants more of that?
Mr. Trump may not be an outright denier of climate change, but from announcing a withdrawal from the Paris Accord four months ago to now abandoning air quality standards, he has made it clear that he may as well be a flat-earther. Climate change is the real danger facing the United States, not over-regulation. The president’s failure to recognize that rising sea levels, loss of sustainable farmland, worsening floods, drought and other weather-related disasters, vector-born disease and the likelihood of wars launched because of these increasingly dire conditions are a serious and growing threat to U.S. security could well prove his most lasting legacy.
One last point. President Obama never declared war on coal. And the Clean Power Plan wasn’t costing the U.S. $33 billion, only a gross distortion of the numbers can possibly suggest that. All that President Trump has succeeded in doing is to put a greater burden on states and the federal courts to impose the protections through local laws and lawsuits that the American public deserves. That, and to signal to the rest of the world that as long as Mr. Trump is president, the U.S. is an unreliable partner in global efforts to mitigate an environmental disaster in the making.
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