Coal is slowly dying off. Over the past 80 years, coal jobs have been on the decline and the dirtiest of all energy sources, regarding energy production, was eclipsed by renewables in 2015 globally and by natural gas in 2016 domestically. Market forces like automation and decreasing natural gas costs have diminished the demand for coal jobs and the industry altogether.
These factors, coupled with coal’s devastating effects on the environment, have led many countries to move away from the deleterious resource. The United Kingdom, France, and Finland have all made promises to phase-out non-scrubbing coal plants, Germany has seen a reduction in its coal usage, and China and India have made aggressive pushes for renewables.
None of these factors – market forces or international forces – have perturbed the Make America Great Again (MAGA) plan and its architect, President Donald Trump. In Mar. 2017, President Trump signed an executive order with the goal of revising former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and curtailing restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas plants.
While the Clean Power Plan never went into effect and roughly 30 states already have similar initiatives in place, President Trump’s decision flies in the face of eight years of previous policies, the scientific communities recommendations, and the changing tides of the international community at large. A fact seen in the United States’ sclerotic abstention from the Paris Climate Accords, making it one of the only countries in the world not taking part.
To achieve his goals of reviving coal jobs, President Trump and his cabinet are relying on two tools — lying and hypocrisy. On numerous occasions, the president has touted the idea of clean coal as a rebuke to the concerns of environmentalists. Unfortunately, the process of carbon capture and storage (CCS) he is referencing with the term ‘clean coal’ is an economic fantasy.
Multiple leaders, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, have proposed such systems and yet only one CCS plant exists in the United States, and less than 20 exist worldwide. The implementation of CCS at existing facilities has proved far too expensive to gather any momentum. As such, many companies are looking to cheaper means of cutting carbon emissions notably, nuclear, natural gas, wind, and solar.
This is where the second tranche of President Trump’s plan kicks in — hypocrisy and market interference. Rick Perry, the president’s nominee for Secretary of Energy, submitted a proposal on Dec. 8 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to provide subsidies to power plants with a 90-day fuel supply on site. This plan, according to the secretary, is to tackle the fluctuations and instabilities of energy production that tend to occur in the colder months.
This claim is fallacious at best and a lie at worst. According to the Rhodium Group, a research firm, less than one-hundredth of one percent of power shortages between 2012 and 2016 were the result of fuel shortages at plants. The real impetus for this plan stems from the president’s desire to reinvigorate coal.
The only two energy sources capable of having fuel reserves on site are coal and nuclear plants. Natural gas facilities are fed via offsite pipes, and no current method exists to store 90 days of electricity from renewable energy sources.
Rick Perry’s plan has been lambasted by eight former FERC commissioners and represents a polar shift in his party’s reverent adherence to free-market economics. The secretary himself has vocally expressed his outrage towards subsidies for clean energy sources. And yet, he has now submitted a plan asking the FERC, a body that aims to preserve the independence of energy markets, to do the economic equivalent of placing its thumb on the scale for the dirtiest energy source available.
There is no clear basis for the president’s coal fixation. Perhaps it stems from the fact that four out of five coal-producing states voted for him. It is equally likely, however, that the cause and effect there are reversed. Regardless, market forces and an ethical conscience should move the United States away from its insistence on coal.
Even with the president’s most fervent support, six more coal plants shut down this year, and more will continue to do so. The world is moving away from coal. If the United States refuses to adapt, it is going to experience increased energy costs and will be left behind in the ashes.
If the president truly wants to make this country great, he ought to reinstate Presidents Obama’s regulations, augment taxes on carbon emissions, rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, abandon his fixation on coal, and change his slogan to something more modern. Perhaps, Make America Green Again.