Trump's costly coal-fired revival

The Trump administration could scarcely have chosen a moment to appear more villainous than right now, in the closing month of a summer of rain and fire. With the record wildfires out west, flooding and other severe weather in the east and international concerns that the U.S. is ignoring the threat posed by climate change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision Tuesday to move forward with the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, formally discharging the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and relaxing federal pollution controls on coal-fired power plants, is just the kind of special interest handout that will have crowds cheering at every coal country political rally attended by President Donald Trump from now until midterms while costing hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives for years to come.

For anyone who might possibly have thought that Scott Pruitt’s departure from the EPA would in some way soften President Trump’s approach to air pollution and public health, let alone climate change, reality has arrived. The Trump administration is going to allow older coal burning plants to stay in business much longer then the agency had previously planned with the effect of releasing millions of tons in added pollutants, many of them linked to cancer, into the atmosphere. That’s not just carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, that means more mercury, more carbon monoxide, more sulfur dioxide and more nitrogen oxides.

In Maryland, where the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor are fighting not over whether to cut greenhouse gas emissions but how far and how fast to do so, the decision out of Washington demonstrates the futility of expecting air pollution problems with global implications to be set exclusively at the State House level. That’s not to suggest Maryland should not move forward with its own efforts to promote renewable energy and curb air pollution — as the state has been doing despite a court-ordered stay of the Clean Power Plan — but the Trump action is going to significantly hamper what can be achieved to protect public health and address climate change in Maryland. Air pollution has an unfortunate way of disrespecting political boundaries. Much of the pollution that causes Maryland’s asthma sufferers, those with compromised immune systems, the elderly and young children to have difficulty breathing and to stay indoors on “Code Red” days originates in upwind states like Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. As much as 70 percent of the pollutants that form ground-level ozone (the main culprit in those Code Red days) come here from out of state. And those states are likely to prove less inclined to restrict power plant emissions.

So why make people suffer? Why take lives? Why further delay the nation’s renewable energy future at a time when so many other countries are moving forward? President Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler offer only one substantial reason — to save money. But the calculation of $400 million in annual compliance cost savings is faulty and misleading. It’s like suggesting it would save Americans money to rescind child labor laws and have little kids knotting our rugs instead of going to school. Well, sure, it would lower rug prices and create jobs, but in the long term, you would lose a generation and the nation’s future economic growth. This handout to Big Coal is arguably worse. It might temporarily raise demand for coal (although it also might not, given that low natural gas prices have spurred so many coal-fired plants to be shuttered in recent years regardless of EPA rules), but there’s no future in it, and, meanwhile, the country has paid an exorbitant price in health care costs alone.

If this sounds somewhat alarming, we apologize. We should sound like we’re screaming at the top of our lungs on this subject because it’s not just our lungs that stand to be brutalized, it’s the very land we stand on, too. Rising sea levels and more intensive storms are destined to hit this state hard. The impact is already being felt with flooding in vulnerable communities like Ellicott City and Smith Island. Denying climate change isn’t helping matters on that front. Add this to the growing list of Trump administration follies — like ignoring upwind enforcement — that force states like Maryland to go to court to insist the EPA enforce its Clean Air Act mandates, and there’s a pattern of favoring a few key constituents at the expense of the many.

Power plant operators, take note: This isn’t going to stand. The United States is destined to continue its interrupted march toward renewable energy and away from burning fossil fuels not because environmentalists want it or because Europeans expect it but because there is no practical choice. The consequences of relying so heavily on coal-fired energy are too great a burden to bear, whether measured in asthma attacks, cancer diagnoses, 100-year floods turned into annual events or just tax dollars paid out to repair the next climate-related disaster.

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