Coal, climate change and West Virginia: ‘We need to get on with the business of dealing with this’

May 30, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Dirtiest Power Plant

This photo taken May 5, 2014 shows the stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It seems like everybody has some new report coming out this week to try to call attention to one aspect or another of the huge decision expected on Monday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The first-ever rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Just for example, Tuesday brought this report from Harvard and Syracuse about the public health “co-benefits” of an EPA rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions.  On Wednesday,  there was this report that ranks power plants, power companies and states according to their carbon emissions. And we also heard from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a report outlining lots of scary things it says the EPA’s plans will do to our nation’s economy. EPA shot back with a blog post from an “experienced political operative” who runs the agency’s communications operation, and the Chamber responded on its own blog.

There’s also more than plenty media coverage. Some of it, like this Washington Post story, seems to be reaching to find some little scrap of a scoop about what EPA may or may not put in its proposed rule. Other stories, like this one from Bloomberg, are trying to parse out the various positions taken by different interest groups as this particular big fight begins in earnest. Some stories are hauling out the tired old narrative to speculate about potential political impacts of this battle, while others dug deeper for a more interesting political story.

Locally in the coalfields, expect even more of the nonsense we saw from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce commentary that the Daily Mail published last week. When you see that stuff, be wary of the wild claims about potential job losses and especially increased electrical rates, and before you freak out, read A bogus claim that electricity prices will ‘nearly double’ because of clean coal technology, in which The Washington Post’s Fact Checker dismantles the ad campaign from the National Mining Association:

This is a case study of how a trade group takes a snippet of congressional testimony and twists it out of proportion for political purposes …

There’s little justification for this radio ad to claim that people will see their electric bills nearly double because of the EPA rules on new coal plants. The NMA has seized upon a high-end wholesale estimate for “full recapture” carbon capture and sequestration technologies which the EPA specifically rejected — and then leveraged that factoid to make a wholly unsupported claim that the same increase would be reflected in retail prices. The EPA’s proposed regulations, along with other factors, may boost the cost of electricity, but the NMA should not rely on such bogus, hyped evidence to make its case.

Along those lines, The Economist offered this disclaimer about all of this “war on coal” business:

Republican talk of a “war on coal” is exaggerated. Market forces, from cheap natural gas to dwindling Appalachian coal reserves, have so far killed more mining jobs than green rules have.

And in one of the better pieces I’ve seen in the run-up to the new EPA rules, The Associated Press explained:

Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of “immediate and devastating” consequences from the Obama administration’s push to clean up pollution from coal.

Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.

Instead, the massive Western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

Often, we in the media get so rolled up in the “news” — what’s happening right now — and trying to break some new aspect of the moving story, that we forget about or obscure the longer history of an issue, the real story arc that is probably more meaningful for our society. Trying to think of what our readers might need to know right about now about coal and climate change, I was looking back to a story I did nearly 17 years ago, as the world was beginning talks about the Kyoto treaty. The piece started out:

Thousands of West Virginia miners will go to work this week to help dig the coal that provides half of the country’s electricity.

At the same time, on the other side of the world in Japan, diplomats, scientists and elected officials from 160 nations will make decisions that could determine if many of those miners lose their jobs.

World leaders will gather in Kyoto, Japan, Monday for a 10-day summit to try to come up with a plan to curb pollutants that cause global warming.

Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most notorious of the greenhouse gases. Too much of it traps heat near the Earth, studies show. It warms the planet and otherwise tinkers with the climate system.

If greenhouse emissions aren’t scaled back, scientists say, people around the world will face problems that range from bigger blizzards to searing droughts, from flooded coastal regions to freak storms in the mountains and plains.

Here in West Virginia, political leaders, industry and labor worry that the cure could be just as bad, or worse, than the disease.

“It’s a work-to-welfare program for West Virginia,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

But it also reported:

“West Virginia is not New Hampshire, which has a fairly substantial high-tech component,” said Eugene Trisko, a Berkeley Springs lawyer and economist who studies climate-change policy for the UMW. “It’s not Florida, where the economy is run on retired people.

“Because of the lack of diversity in West Virginia’s economy, you would not expect that West Virginia would have an easier time adapting,” he said.

Still, some studies suggest that if power plants became more efficient, they could keep burning coal. State-level discussions of global warming rarely include examination of these studies.

Industry and labor officials seem focused instead on trying to derail the treaty. No one talks much about how to minimize the harm to coal-mining communities or help miners find other jobs.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at that,” Raney said.

Homer City Generating Station

This photo taken May 5, 2014 shows a pickup truck driving down a road of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.

Several of the arguments that coal industry and labor officials made in that story really struck me. They’re the same ones they are making today when they insist President Obama and EPA are moving too quickly or that the U.S. shouldn’t do anything about global warming unless every other country on the planet makes exactly the same commitments.

For example:

UMW President Cecil Roberts is also concerned that current global climate treaty proposals would send U.S. jobs overseas.

Some treaty supporters, including environmental groups, say the United States should take the lead in reducing its greenhouse emissions.

The United States, with 4 percent of the world’s population, produces more than 20 percent of its greenhouse gases. Other nations are poorer and don’t currently emit as much. They shouldn’t be asked to do as much as soon, some say.

But Roberts says that if developing nations aren’t required to cut back their greenhouse emissions, manufacturers will move American jobs to those nations. At the same time, increased emissions from developing nations will offset reductions in industrialized countries, meaning no progress toward stopping climate change, Roberts says.

“Until all nations are on board, I will continue to challenge the treaty because of its potentially devastating effect on America’s economy and its workers,” Roberts said in October.

Earlier this week, Coral Davenport had a piece in The New York Times that offered a pretty reasonable response to those kinds of arguments, explaining clearly how and why leaders in other parts of the world look to the U.S. for leadership on this issue:

“I am closely watching this. This standard is the real test of how serious the Obama climate action plan really is,” said Qi Ye, director of the Climate Policy Center at Tsinghua University in China. The university is one of about half a dozen institutions that the Chinese government has tasked with immediately analyzing the new rule, according to Chinese experts.

China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies and greenhouse gas polluters, are locked in a stalemate over global warming. While today China pollutes more than the United States, Chinese officials insist that, as a developing economy, China should not be forced to take carbon-cutting actions. China has demanded that the United States, as the world’s historically largest polluter, go first. Chinese policy experts say that Mr. Obama’s regulation could end that standoff.

“If the standard is really stringent, that will make a difference in the domestic debate in China,” Mr. Qi said.

The story went on:

… Scientists have also warned that collective action, with carbon cuts by all the major economies, is essential to achieve the drastic reduction in carbon pollution necessary to stave off the most destructive impacts of global warming.

This December, leaders from many nations will gather in Lima, Peru, at a United Nations summit meeting aimed at drafting a treaty, to be signed in 2015, that would legally bind the world’s major economies to cut their carbon pollution.

The goal is to avoid the debacle of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first attempt to forge a climate change treaty, which was effectively rendered null when the United States Senate refused to ratify it.

But as Mr. Obama moves ahead using his existing authority under the Clean Air Act, governments around the world have taken notice — and tried to learn everything they can about the law.

“We’re very excited to see the new rule on existing power plants. We see this as absolutely the backbone of U.S. climate strategy,” said Günter Hörmandinger, environmental counselor to the European Union delegation in Washington. The European Union, which enacted a carbon-cutting policy after the Kyoto Protocol, has been among the critics of the United States’ climate change policy.

Other example in that story of how things haven’t changed were these comments from the coal association’s Bill Raney on what he hoped any climate treaty might look like:

I hold out hope that, if it’s properly structured and we have enough sense about us, that what we end up doing is committing money that is necessary to learn how to better use coal.

Of course, we know today that the industry has never really put the necessary investments into “clean coal” technology, that industry lobbyists would oppose a federal climate bill that even the UMWA said would protect mining’s future, and that the Holy Grail of carbon capture and storage isn’t going to happen unless the government puts a meaningful price on carbon emissions. And who knows how much more progress could have been made on these issues were the public not confused into inaction by a giant, decades-long denial campaign by fossil fuel interests.

When EPA’s rules are being debated and some in the business community go on endlessly about what a terrible economic disaster the whole thing will be, go back and read what economic Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times about the Chamber of Commerce analysis:

The Chamber’s supposed scare headline is that regulations would cost the US economy $50.2 billion per year in constant dollars between now and 2030. That’s for a plan to reduce GHG emissions 40 percent from their 2005 level, so it’s for real action.

So, is $50 billion a lot? Let’s look at the CBO’s long-term projections. These say that average annual US real GDP over the period 2014-2030 will be $21.5 trillion. So the Chamber is telling us that we can achieve major reductions in greenhouse gases at a cost of 0.2 percent of GDP. That’s cheap!

True, the chamber also says that the regulations would cost 224,000 jobs in an average year. That’s bad economics: US employment is determined by the interaction between macroeconomic policy and the underlying tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, and there’s no good reason to think that environmental protection would reduce the number of jobs (as opposed to real wages). But even at face value that’s also a small number in a country with 140 million workers.

So, I was ready to come down hard on the Chamber’s bad economics; but what they’ve actually just shown is that even when they’re paying for the study, the economics of climate protection look quite easy.

Maybe this all won’t be quite so easy for West Virginia, especially for our coalfield communities where mining remains one of the few — if not the only — real option for a good job, and at least a bare-bones tax base for things like schools. But remember that, even without any regulations to reduce greenhouse emissions, coal production in Southern West Virginia is projected to continue its steep downward trend.

coalproduction_I121013205100

That chart isn’t presenting some new idea. As we’ve covered before, it’s been something we knew was coming for a long, long time.  As I wrote at the conclusion of that story 17 years ago:

Back in the 1950s, when legendary UMW President John L. Lewis became convinced mine mechanization was inevitable, Lewis brokered a deal. He agreed not to oppose mechanization in exchange for coal operators creating a much-lauded “cradle-to-grave” health care system for miners and their families. The program is still a model for worker health-care plans.

If international treaties to curb global warming are inevitable, as many experts believe they are, when will West Virginia and its leaders get to work on a compromise that will spare the coalfields some of the impacts?

“That’s one of the problems,” said Raney of the coal association. “I don’t think we need to poor-mouth, but we need to get on with the business of dealing with this.”

All these years after that story, we’re still basically having the same arguments, aimed at forcing the same kinds of delays at both dealing with climate change and taking steps to ensure the kids of Southern West Virginia have more than one option in life. When will we get on with the business of dealing with this?

 

One Response to “Coal, climate change and West Virginia: ‘We need to get on with the business of dealing with this’”

  1. EnviroSci says:

    From page 2 of the June 11, 2009 Memorandum of Understanding between EPA, USACE, and the Dept. of the Interior: “Federal Agencies will work with the appropriate regional, state, and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities. This interagency effort will have a special focus on stimulating clean enterprise and green jobs development, encouraging better coordination among existing federal efforts, and supporting innovative new ideas and initiatives.”

    Seems to me that now would be a good time for the EPA, et. al. to outline what they plan to do in order to meet the commitment made in the second sentence. It’s only been five years and I have heard nothing. What a great PR thing it would be if a plan of how coal jobs would be migrated to “clean and green” jobs where attached to today’s announcement on power plant emissions.

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