West Virginia is second only to Wyoming in both coal production and President Trump’s winning vote percentage in the 2016 general election. So it was no surprise that Trump flew to the Mountain State on Tuesday to stump for his new plan to boost coal-fired power plants by cutting regulations on planet-warming carbon emissions.
“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal,” Trump told supporters at the Charleston Civic Center, while mocking renewable energy and natural gas, which have displaced coal in electric utilities across the US. “We love [coal]," he said. "You know, it’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills. They fall down real quick. You can blow up those pipelines real quick. You can do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt, coal. You can do whatever you want to coal.”
Trump’s new power plant proposal—released by the EPA on Tuesday—would give states more leeway in regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and allow older coal plants to keep running. Administration officials say the plan will result in both more carbon dioxide emissions and more air pollution. It would also hit West Virginians the hardest when it comes to the effects of toxic air pollution from those very same coal plants. That’s according to a risk analysis by Trump's own EPA released Tuesday.
On page 176 of the 289-page document, EPA officials assembled a colored map of the United States showing the number of deaths per 100,000 people due to respiratory ailments from tiny particles of soot (also known as particulate matter, or pm-2.5). Under four scenarios of increased coal-fired electricity production under the new plan, West Virginia is shaded in the darkest red. That indicates it is the epicenter for the highest number of additional deaths from particulate and ozone pollution in the United States. Southwest Pennsylvania and parts of the upper Ohio Valley—regions of both coal mining and coal-fired electricity—are in the next-reddest group for additional deaths.
Nationwide, the EPA analysis states that the increase in coal burning under the Trump plan would result in an additional 470 to 1,400 premature deaths each year by 2030 due to respiratory ailments.
In comparison, the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan would have saved 1,500 to 3,600 premature air pollution deaths annually by 2030. The new White House proposal would replace the Obama rules, which were blocked by the Supreme Court in 2016 after lawsuits argued that the Obama plan was too restrictive and would cause electricity prices to rise. The Obama plan was in legal limbo until the White House announced it was replacing it.
Critics say the Trump plan will do nothing to help slow the effects of climate warming, and will allow some utilities to spew out more harmful air pollution. “This is absolutely a rollback that will result in more pollution,” said Benjamin Longstreth, deputy director for federal policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that opposes the new EPA plan.
EPA officials said the new power plant rules would allow each state to set its own emissions-reduction goals by using energy-efficiency technologies at each plant. The states would have to pick from a set of approved EPA-approved technologies, and each state's emissions plan would need final approval from EPA officials in Washington. The EPA analysis estimates that under the Trump plan, greenhouse gas emissions would be 3 percent higher than under the Obama regulations.
EPA director of the office of air quality William Wehrum, an attorney for coal, energy and manufacturing companies until he joined the agency, drafted the new Trump plan.
“Every power plant is a bit different,” Wehrum told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday. “What our program would do is to set standards that are tailored to the facility.” Wehrum said that the EPA will regulate the potential public health impacts using existing clean air laws rather than forcing power plants to burn less coal that produce pollutants.
“What we are dealing with is greenhouse gases, we are not dealing with sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide or pm2.5,” he said. “We have abundant legal authority to deal with those other pollutants. If we want to regulate pm, we regulate pm straight up.”
In addition to carbon dioxide, which is the major greenhouse gas, burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, mercury, and dozens of toxic chemicals that are linked to human health effects.
Nitrogen oxides and particulates combine with sunlight to form smog, which causes respiratory ailments in both children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, for example. Mercury escapes from coal-burning power plants into the atmosphere, returns to the ground in the form of rain and is washed into streams and water bodies. Mercury then accumulates in fish, and moves up the food chain where it poses neurological health risks to pregnant women and children who eat the fish, according to the EPA website.
Coal-burning power plants account for 42 percent of all sources of mercury in the US, the EPA says. But when it comes to US energy, coal has been a big loser for the past decade. The one-two punch of cheaper natural gas and power from solar farms and wind turbines has cut the amount of coal-fired electricity powering US homes from 50 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2013.
That big drop was the result of cheaper natural gas and renewables, not more environmental regulations, according to a May 2018 study in the American Economic Journal by Harrison Fell, associate professor of agriculture and resource economist at North Carolina State University, and his colleague Daniel Kaffine, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor in economics.
Fell says that the same market forces are continuing to push coal out of the US energy stream. He believes the new EPA power plant proposal might prolong the agony for some coal miners and coal producing areas, but it won’t change the equation for utilities that have cheaper alternatives. “I doubt you will see a massive reinvestment in coal-fired generation,” Fell said. “It’s not going to lead to a whole bunch of new coal plants, but it will stave off retirement of some of them.”
One bit of good news for those West Virginia miners: Even though the state's coal production is expected to continue dropping through 2030, according to a new study by West Virginia University, exports to coal-hungry India, Ukraine, and Brazil might keep some of them working.
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