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Coal isn't coming back

Now that President Donald Trump has taken his first official steps in rolling back the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions chiefly by discouraging the use of coal to fuel power plants, as well as reversing other pro-environmental Obama administration policies, it's worthwhile to review what these choices might actually accomplish as well as the things they won't. If Mr. Trump succeeds, the most obvious effect is that it will make it virtually impossible for the United States to meet the climate change goals outlined in the Paris Agreement which, in turn, will encourage other countries to reconsider their anti-pollution commitments as well.

That means all the adverse impacts of global warming, including sea level rise, floods, droughts and other unnatural natural disasters, will get that much worse that much faster. And what benefits will this policy produce? It might prevent further layoffs in the domestic coal industry and perhaps even create some hiring, although competition from cheap natural gas produced by fracking and the increasingly mechanized nature of coal mining make that a modest possible achievement at best. It won't make the country more energy independent, as we don't import coal. It won't raise coal industry wages, as Mr. Trump's choice to open up more mining on federal land is likely to only worsen the current glut of coal on the market and drive down prices. And it won't produce a net benefit to consumers who will literally pay through their lungs. (The EPA previously estimated the Clean Power Plan would reduce public health costs by as much as $54 billion a year by 2030, or roughly six times its estimated $8.4 billion cost, because it meant hundreds of thousands fewer tons of poisonous sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide spewed into the atmosphere.)

Even by the standards of the Trump administration's foolish and shortsighted boondoggles of his first two months in office, from the amateurish rollout of the unconstitutional Muslim ban to the spectacularly awful (if short-lived) Trumpcare repeal-and-replace legislation that crashed and burned last week, this is an especially bad deal for the vast majority of Americans. It is an Electoral College payoff, fulfilling a campaign promise that helped the president capture swing states like coal-producing Pennsylvania and Ohio, that will be financed in thousands of premature deaths from conditions related to air pollution such as heart disease and asthma. Whatever is being celebrated today in West Virginia and Kentucky will be mourned for years to come.

But let's say you reject climate change science despite the consensus of experts. Maybe you are simply convinced that the energy industry should be left unregulated. Well, here's a newsflash: That's been tried in places like China, where the end result is a hellscape of noxious air and acid rain. Air pollution doesn't fix itself. In addition to carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, there are coal ash, particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, arsenic, lead, cadmium and even traces of uranium. Perhaps some day there will be a "clean coal" technology that addresses all these pollutants at a reasonable cost, but right now there isn't. Scrubbers and other power plant upgrades available now can help, but coal is simply too inefficient a source of power for the enormous pollution it generates.

The U.S. needs a 21st century energy policy, not a return to a 19th century approach. What's required is a plan that encourages conservation as well as renewable sources of energy. That's what other countries are doing, and fixating on coal (or even loosening rules on methane released by fracking) instead can only slow this country's transition to a smarter, more sustainable approach and thus cause us to lose our competitiveness in the world economy. Sacrificing the U.S. position of leadership on climate change will cost us dearly — in jobs as well as human health. Over the last decade, solar power alone accounted for more new jobs in the power generation field than coal, gas and oil combined, according to a recent U.S. Department of Energy report.

At least it will take time to kill the Clean Power Plan. Environmental groups are likely to file lawsuits, and the legal fight could take years. The more immediate danger is that Americans will pay dearly for this lost opportunity to address the climate crisis and finally mothball aging, highly-polluting coal-fired power plants that are holding this country behind from a better, cleaner and more sustainable — and ultimately more profitable — energy future.

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