Coal country’s economic woes took center stage at the Environmental Protection Agency as President Donald Trump signed an executive order to undo parts of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy.
The president was flanked by coal workers and industry figures and defenders, such as West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Ohio-based coal operator Bob Murray, during the signing ceremony.
Trump’s executive order asks the EPA to rewrite the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan -- a rule that limits carbon emissions from power plants and requires states to reduce emission levels (2005 levels) by 32 percent by 2030.
“My action today is the latest in a series of steps to create American jobs and grow American wealth,” Trump said. “Together we are going to start a new energy revolution.”
In addition to asking the EPA to rework the Clean Power Plan, Trump’s order also repeals former executive directives to reduce the federal government's carbon footprint. It requests an end to an existing moratorium of new coal mines on federal land, and rolls back pollution rules that affect the oil and gas industry. The order also tells federal regulators to disregard a tool that quantifies the social cost of climate change in economic analysis of future regulatory decisions.
Legal analysts say undoing the Obama plan will take time, even though a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court had halted its implementation.
Morrisey was among the 27 state attorneys general challenging the Obama plan in the case West Virginia v. EPA. Morrisey said he thinks the president’s action can help his state’s hard-hit mining industry rebound.
“I believe that there can be a comeback,” Morrisey said. “It’s hard to predict total numbers, but it matters a lot when you can take the regulatory overhang out of the way.”
But while Morrisey hopes that derailing regulation will help revive an ailing industry, some in that very business doubt the executive order will significantly affect coal’s fortunes.
Bob Murray, chief executive of Ohio-based Murray Energy, supports Trump’s move but has cautioned the president against promising more mining jobs.
“I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” Murray told The Guardian. “He can’t bring them back.”
Some executives in the region’s major coal-burning utilities say the demise of the Clean Power Plan won’t have a large effect on the continued decline of coal’s market share.
“There is a shift going on for reasons beyond the Clean Power Plan,” Charles Patton told a West Virginia energy conference audience last spring. Patton is chief operating officer for one of the largest electric utilities in the region, Appalachian Power. He said the abundance of cheap natural gas is a major reason that Appalachian Power plans to reduce dependence on coal from 74 percent in 2012, to 53 percent by 2024.
Patton said his company is more interested in the underlying science and economics of climate change than the political rhetoric.
“Once you get through the political morass,” Patton said, “at the end of the day, most Americans believe that there’s something going on [with the climate] and that we need to take steps to address [climate change]. That belief is common in businesses …and also utilities.”