Last week I argued that Donald Trump can’t revive the American coal industry, that coal is dead. But as the debate rages over the Clean Power Plan, tied up in lawsuits since last year, it is becoming apparent that the President might be able to shock King Coal’s heart with the policy defibrillator and help it rally a time or two before finally shuffling off this mortal coil for good.
The Clean Power Plan was President Barack Obama’s 2015 declaration of war against coal. The EPA developed targets for all 50 states and the strategy was to reduce electricity generation CO2 emissions by 32 percent (relative to 2005 levels) by 2030.
States that were dependent on coal for most of their power, like Wyoming and Montana, were not happy and 16 state governments led by Republicans immediately launched a lawsuit against the plan.
Trump campaigned against the plan and recently signed an executive order asking EPA head Scott Pruitt to review it. The President is supported by a coalition of 24 Republican states, led by West Virginia and Texas.
“The order (to withdraw the plan) should explain that it is the administration’s view that the (Clean Power Plan) is unlawful and that EPA lacks authority to enforce it. The executive order is necessary to send an immediate and strong message to States and regulated entities that the administration will not enforce the rule,” WV attorney general Patrick Morrisey said.
On Thursday, a coalition of states supporting the Clean Power Plan weighed in, led by Democratic NY AG Eric Schneiderman, who also intervened in Nov. 2015 against the Republican state legal challenges to the plan (a year and half later and Schneiderman and his allies say in a press release that a decision “is expected at any time”).
What do Schneiderman et. al. want?
After Trump signed the Clean Power Plan order, Pruitt and the EPA filed a motion asking the court to hold the litigation “in abeyance” while the agency decides whether to ““suspend, rescind, or revise” the plan. Granting abeyance would probably stay the litigation for years – indefinitely delaying the implementation – according to Schneiderman.
“The law is clear: the EPA must limit carbon pollution from power plants,” said Schneiderman. “In order to repeal Obama-era protections, the Trump Administration must replace those protections, as well – and we know how well repeal-and-replace [of Obamacare] went the first time around.”
What effect might the court granting abeyance have on US power plant emissions?
The US Energy Information Administration addressed this question in a Feb. study, which found that without the Clean Power Plan coal’s share of American electricity generation would flatten out around 2010 levels (1,500 billion kilowatt/hours per year) and remain there until at least 2040.
With the Clean Power Plan, coal falls below 1,000 billion kilowatt/hours per year by 2040, surpassed by natural gas in five years and by renewables in 10 (additional EIA studies on the plan’s effect on US power generation fuel choices here and here and here and here).
Some of we energy pundits have been a bit sanguine about King Coal’s demise. Reuters energy analyst John Kemp, for instance, argued in this column that the ageing US coal power plant fleet is becoming increasingly uneconomic with age and will be eventually replaced entirely by natural gas.
The question, of course, is how long is “eventually”?
Ideally, eventually should mean as short a time as possible. The emerging American power generation model is natural gas + wind + solar + battery storage + smart grids.
If the Clean Power Plan creates a policy framework that allows an efficient and cost-effective (and timely) transition from the old to the new power gen model, then the plan should be implemented. Even if it has to be revised somewhat to overcome objections from the coal-burning states.
However many jobs are lost in coal production (not as many as commonly believed, since US coal output has only declined about 30% since the gas onslaught began a decade ago), there are many more jobs to be created in gas production, renewables, and the technology development that comes with storage and power grid upgrades.
Trump may want to rethink his executive order. At the very least, we should hope Schneiderman and his fellow AGs are victorious in court.