Commentary: Photo Ops with Coal Miners Offer No Substitute for Fact-Based Climate Policy

Photograph of President Trump shaking hand of hard-hat-wearing coal miner
Photo: Ron Sachs/Getty Images
Buyer Beware: President Trump's policies support both coal and natural gas, coal's economic nemesis.

President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the EPA yesterday as he signed an executive order calling for a clean sweep of all federal policies hindering development of fossil fuel production in the United States. The order’s centerpiece is an instruction to federal agencies to cease defending the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and thus, according to Trump’s rhetoric, revive coal-fired power generation and the miners who fuel it.

The electric power sector, however, responded with polite dismissal. 

What separates President Trump and some of his top officials from power engineers and utilities? The latter operate in a world governed by science and other measurable forces. Unlike President Trump, scientists, engineers, and executives suffer reputational and financial losses when they invent new forms of logic that are unsupported by evidence. And a world of fallacies underlies the President and his administration’s rejection of climate action.

The biggest Trump administration fallacy at work yesterday is its claim that climate change may not be primarily human-caused—the standard line on climate espoused by top GOP leaders in Congress and Trump administration officials such as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

This oft-repeated claim is scientifically indefensible, given multiple lines of evidence that indict rising levels of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane caused by fossil fuel combustion, cement production, deforestation, and other economic activities. This includes robust satellite observations showing that natural factors have had negligible impact since 1980. As NASA scientist Thorsten Markus reminded us recently, anthropogenic climate change is simply, “what the data show.”

Fallacy of the day goes, however, to the only research cited in defense of Trump’s order: a NERA Economic Consulting report from November 2015 suggesting that “40 states could have average retail electricity price increases of 10 percent or more” thanks to the Clean Power Plan.

EPA designed the Clean Power Plan to cut power sector carbon emissions by nearly one-third by 2030 by emphasizing renewable energy, natural gas, and energy efficiency and dialing back coal-fired power. President Trump sees “an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs.” Most modeling, however, projects net economic gains from reduced use of coal, including health benefits and long-term savings for consumers.

World Resources Institute economist Noah Kaufman examined four power price projections in January, including the NERA report cited by Trump officials. Three of the studies project that electrical bills will be down in 2030, from 3 to 17 percent. Here’s Kaufman’s explanation for how NERA’s research, which was commissioned by a coal advocacy group, reached the opposite conclusion:

In every case, the study funded by the coal advocacy group used assumptions at or above the top of the range of expert forecasts or empirical estimates of the costs of clean energy available in late 2015 when the studies were conducted. In other words, the study assumed that the rapid advances in clean technologies like solar and wind energy prior to 2015 would not continue into the future, a hypothesis that has already been proven wrong.

Yesterday the electric power sector responded to Trump’s order by rejecting NERA’s negative view of renewable energy, as well as Trump’s fallacy-based fantasy that he can put coal miners back to work. “The sector plans to keep moving steadily toward a cleaner, more distributed energy future—no matter what happens with the Clean Power Plan,” reported UtilityDIVE, a mainstream business publication.

UtilityDIVE issued its annual survey of electric utility executives yesterday, concluding that rescinding the Clean Power Plan was unlikely to reverse coal’s fortunes “mostly due to the economics of natural gas and renewables.” Over two-thirds of executives surveyed expected their power mix over the coming decade would include modestly or significantly more wind power and 82 percent expected solar growth.

Only one in four executives expressed a desire for the federal government to abandon a decarbonization policy, while a majority—58 percent—called for additional measures beyond the Clean Power Plan. A national price on carbon, such as that which Canada is adopting, was the leading policy option.

UtilityDIVE’s big picture view was endorsed by dozens of state-level reports from such utilities as American Electric Power, which slashed its reliance on coal from 71 percent to 47 percent over the last two years. Based in Columbus, Ohio, AEP said it would continue to “balance out our portfolio with more natural gas and renewable generation,” according to local journal Columbus Business First. The journal added context by reminding readers of 10 natural gas plants under development in the state.

Duluth-based Minnesota Power told Michigan Public Radio that it would press on with plans to slash coal-fired generation in favor of wind and natural gas. That report provided context by noting local climate shifts meant “fewer pond hockey days, longer ragweed seasons, and heavier rainstorms that wreak havoc on farm fields, highways, and homes.”

The radio station also quoted the Republican chairman of the state’s House energy committee, Pat Garofalo, who dismissed Trump’s vow to put coal miners back to work. “The combination of wind and natural gas on price, pollution, and productivity are just trouncing every other energy source. And this executive order won’t change that.”

Further evidence of power sector resolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions came from Carnegie Mellon University and equipment supplier Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, which unveiled a novel index of power sector carbon intensity and plans for high-profile quarterly reporting. “We wanted to make sure that everyone understands how we’re doing,” explains Costa Samaras, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

How will all of this industry action on climate balance out against a hostile U.S. administration? Let’s take that up by correcting one more fallacy at work yesterday—one not from the Trump camp but built into yesterday’s coverage in the New York Times.

The Times ably reported on the near impossibility that the executive order would revive coal in the United States. It overreached, however, in this damning prediction for U.S. climate action: “Mr. Trump’s order signals that the United States will not meet its pledges under the Paris deal to cut its emissions about 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.” 

Experts contacted by IEEE Spectrum yesterday question the Times’ prognostication. “I wouldn’t be that definitive,” says David Waskow, director of WRI’s international climate program. Waskow says Trump’s attack will make it “much harder and more costly” for the U.S. to deliver its share of climate progress. But he said the price of renewable energy continues to drop, and states and businesses may compensate for federal inaction. 

“It’s like you’ve got a runner on a track and now there’s somebody on the side of the track throwing obstacles in the way. It makes it harder but the runner is continuing in the right direction,” says Waskow.

Samaras agrees. “Most of the action climate-wise is going to be at the states and at companies. That was the case yesterday and that’s going to be the case tomorrow,” says Samaras. He expects to see “a little” slowing of U.S. grid decarbonization, but says there is a “good chance” that the U.S. will meet its Paris pledge, barring an unforeseen steep rise in the cost of natural gas.

A return to the pricey natural gas of decades past appears unlikely. Why? Thanks to President Trump and GOP efforts to ease federal restrictions on gas production

Coal miners should read the fine print on the President’s executive order. While Trump’s coal-boosting boasts grabbed yesterday’s headlines, his order calls for “particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.”

America’s dirtiest energy source is third in line, right behind natural gas.

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