Using the CPP to boost coal is just as bad

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President Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly of his support for coal mining, pledging publicly that “we will put our miners back to work.”

It probably should not be surprising, then, that the White House would give serious consideration to a pitch made by several coal-mining union representatives to the Office of Management and Budget that would see the Environmental Protection Agency rewrite the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in ways that help the coal industry.

Alas, the ends the industry wants to achieve using the CPP are at least as wrongheaded as the command-and-control model that was used to craft the emissions plan in the first place.

What the proposal by the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Utility Workers Union of America recommends is for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to initiate only the first of the CPP’s four “building blocks.” Such a plan would reward coal-fired power plant if they improved their boiler heat-rate efficiency, even though the improvements could only cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2-3 percent, as opposed to the additional 10-12 percent the previous administration wanted to see.

The CPP’s other three building blocks—natural gas switching, renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs—would be eliminated, leaving a rump emissions plan that could pass muster in the courts.

Unlike the recent decision to exit the Paris Climate Accords, in which the United States simply said it wouldn’t follow through on a prior commitment, the Clean Power Plan’s regulation of existing power plants was finalized in June 2015. That makes it legally hazardous to jettison the plan, which remains before the U.S. Supreme Court, without a replacement. Only an unprecedented legal stay issued by the court in February 2016 – shortly before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia – kept the regulations from coming into force.

It’s worth remembering that the Clean Power Plan was the Obama administration grand attempt to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. The White House sought to expand the scope of the Clean Air Act beyond “the fence line” of power plants to cut state-level emissions coercively, whether states agreed to the federal actions or not.

But just because the revised rule wouldn’t be as powerful doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be just as damaging to the economy over the long run. Dictating winners and losers in energy markets is always a bad idea. This is as true of the bias against coal and nuclear energy shown by regulators during the second Obama term as it would be of this new proposal to upgrade coal-powered electricity plants to a point where they still won’t be as clean as a new natural gas-fired plant.

The natural gas fracking revolution– driven entirely by market forces and private property rights – has contributed to the 14 percent reduction in energy-related U.S. carbon emissions since 2005, leaving us roughly in the same position we were in the early 1990s. Leaving an ineffective regulatory structure in place of the original CPP may save the Trump administration a lot of time and effort, but it isn’t the principled approach to energy development this country needs in the 21st Century.


Image by 1968

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