Share |

Greed and Genius — Not Obama Plan — Led to Coal’s Decline

Patrick J. Michaels

Many in the energy and environmental industries thought Donald
Trump’s victory in November meant certain death for the Clean Power
Plan (CPP), a piece of low-hanging fruit in Trump’s promise to
revitalize coal country. This regulation, which many
argue
is one of the most expensive in American history, was key
to Obama’s climate legacy and, indeed, the President’s Executive
Order issued this week does kill the CPP. Until, that is, the
environmental activists file for a stay, which could happen any day
now.

As with Trump’s promises for the revitalization of coal
country
, all of this will be more complicated than
suggested.

Legally, the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, held that if the EPA
determined carbon dioxide is a pollutant causing harm to human
health and welfare, then it is empowered to regulate it under the
1992 amendments of the Clean Air Act.

The conversion from coal
to cleaner burning natural gas has led to the decoupling of
economic growth from an increase in carbon emissions — something
many said would only be possible through government
coercion.

Trump’s executive order cannot call on the EPA to cease and
desist from its Clean Power Plan until it somehow determines that
carbon dioxide, after all, does not cause endangerment, or that the
science is simply not there to show that it does. As science moves
slowly, and with the federal government itself providing a vast majority of all climate science
funding
, this will be a difficult battle.

Undoing regulations is typically more difficult than creating
them. However, the selection of Scott Pruitt, who defended the
rights of Oklahomans to set their own environmental standards,
shows the Trump administration is serious. While many left-leaning
environmentalists tend to believe Pruitt is “against” the
environment, the truth is that most Republicans strongly value the
environment — they just wish to regulate it at a state level,
where local knowledge and values can be applied. Pruitt is not an
anti-environmental zealot; as for the EPA, he’s said “Clearly the mission of the EPA is to
protect our natural resources, protecting our water quality,
improving our air.”

And, as many have noted, even the elimination of the Clean Power
Plan will not itself bring coal back to anything like its former
life. The major reductions that the US has made in its greenhouse
gas emissions stem not so much from a war on coal (indeed, the
previous administration was surely belligerent toward the
industry), but from the market itself.

Dramatic advances in geolocation and hydraulic fracturing have
made natural gas, which only emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal
when used for power generation, and the equipment used to burn
it, cheaper
than coal.
It also burns much cleaner, so the expensive
scrubbers and bag houses required to capture coal’s bad residuals
are not necessary.

This conversion from coal to cleaner burning natural gas has led
to the decoupling of economic growth from an increase in carbon
emissions — something many said would only be possible
through government coercion. Instead it was accomplished by greed
and genius.

It’s hard to predict the legal fate of Mr. Trump’s latest
executive order. What we do know, though, is it will be a long time
before the dust settles, and unless many fundamental changes occur
legally, diplomatically, and scientifically, any new administration
can bring Obama’s policies back to life with a pen and a phone.

Patrick J.
Michaels
is the director of the Center for the Study of Science
at the Cato Institute.