At a campaign rally in Charleston for state attorney general and senate candidate Patrick Morrisey, President Donald Trump touted the coal industry’s comeback in West Virginia.
“And it is really happening -- we are back,” Trump told the cheering crowd, many of whom were sporting hard hats and carrying “Trump Digs Coal” signs. “The coal industry is back.”
While coal production and mining jobs have ticked upward in West Virginia since mid-2016 – largely due to exports – recent reports as well as a government analysis released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that trend is not likely to last.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump’s EPA released a more industry-friendly version of federal power plant regulations. The Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule is a replacement for the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation, the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan took a wide approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging states to shift electricity generation away from coal and toward natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. It drew sharp criticism from industry groups and more than half the states in the country.
Morrisey was an outspoken opponent of the Clean Power Plan. He led a coalition of 27 states, utilities and trade associations in a legal challenge of the rule, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court halting its implementation.
What is the Affordable Clean Energy Rule?
The new rule takes a much narrower approach to regulating greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.
The EPA envisions individual states taking the lead. Under the new proposal, states would have the authority to craft their own plans for how to reduce emissions at the power plant level, largely by striving to make plants more efficient with heat rate improvements.
Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation told reporters during a press call, that the ACE rule aims to tip the regulatory balance back toward states when it comes to regulating emissions.
“The key point here is every power plant is different,” he said. “What our proposed program would do is gives states flexibility to take those unique aspects of each of the power plants in their jurisdiction into consideration and then set standards that are tailored to the particular characteristics of the facility.”
Just hours after the EPA unveiled the plan, Trump touted it at the West Virginia rally.
“Every day we’re keeping our promises,” Trump said. “We’re cancelling Obama’s illegal, anti-coal-destroying regulations -- the so-called Clean Power Plan.”
The president said the new regulation, ACE, would “help our coal-fired power plants and save consumes, you, me, everybody, billions and billions of dollars.”
In its in-depth analysis of the rule, the EPA estimates electricity prices would drop 0.2-0.5 percent by 2025 under the new rule.
Perhaps more striking, the agency’s analysis also finds the amount of coal produced in the U.S. is expected to decrease across the board, in some cases drastically.
In Appalachia, coal mines would produce at least 78 percent less coal in 2035 than they did last year.
The West Virginia coal industry has improved under Trump. Production is up nearly 27 percent since the middle of 2016, driven largely by an uptick in coal exports for steel production.
But other parts of the Ohio Valley have seen little change in coal employment. A recent report by West Virginia University forecasts coal production in the state will level out during the next two years and decline sharply during the next two decades.
Opponents and proponents alike were swift with reactions.
In a statement, Gov. Jim Justice called the proposed rule a “big win for West Virginia.”
“President Trump has followed through on his promise to get rid of the Clean Power Plan and use American energy to fuel economic growth,” he said. “The ACE rule will help West Virginia big time and will bring back energy jobs like you can’t imagine.”
Chris Hamilton with the West Virginia Coal Association also expressed optimism.
“It will help, there’s no question about it,” he said. “We’re hopeful and we don’t see any reason that would serve as a barrier to investment and the future of coal, coal mining coal-fired plants.”
Environmental and public health groups pushed back against the new proposal.
Bill Price, an organizing manager for the Sierra Club based in Charleston, said West Virginians should expect to see their air quality and health decrease because of the rollback of the Clean Power Plan.
“One of my major concerns here is that this plan that we’re calling the ‘Dirty Power Plan’ leaves it up to the states to decide how much or if they will reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants,” he said. “The history here in West Virginia is the regulatory agencies don’t do a very good job.”
EPA will accept comments on the rule for 60 days.