by Terry H. Schwadron
So, this is it: Finally, with one signature, Mr. Trump offers an executive order to roll back climate-change leaning and to restore thousands of lost coal industry jobs. The move, which may take years to come into full blossom, undoubtedly will worsen air quality, prompt international ripples and spur a spate of legal challenges.
Of course, by lifting worker regulations as well as environmental ones, he will guarantee that if any miner jobs will return, so too will black lung, emphysema and other diseases along with a higher-than-average injury rate.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (before it too is attacked by budget cuts), coal mining is a relatively dangerous industry. Employees in coal mining in 2007 were more likely to be killed or to incur a non-fatal injury or illness, and their injuries are more likely to be severe than workers in private industry as a whole. Fatal illnesses judged at 4.8 per 100,000 among workers compares with 24.8 per 100,000 among miners; non-fatal disease and illnesses in 2008 struck an average 3.9 per 100 workers, less than 4.4 per 100 miners, 6.5 per 100 bituminous coal miners.
Of course, the regulations being cut back to create a better environmental impetus for business eliminate federal inspections of mines and allow dumping of waste in streams and wetlands near mines. More rule changes will re-allow strip mining.
That is, if substantial numbers of mining jobs return at all to the hollows of West Virginia and Kentucky. Indeed, Energy Department figures show significant shifts away from coal to lower-cost oil and natural gas, and a much larger total employee base for companies offering solar and bio-fuel alternatives as power sources.
Waving a magic executive order — Mr. Trump’s preferred way to do government business — may prove an empty slogan if the nation does not find new markets to sell coal. Even China, a big buyer of American coal, is feeling worldwide pressure of adhering to climate-control policy making, and selling vast new amounts of coal overseas will run directly into the trade agreements that Mr. Trump wants to rip up.
In the United States, the biggest markets for coal traditionally had been electrical utility plans, which a decade or more ago had turned away from coal for natural gas.
All that background meant little as President Trump, flanked by miners at the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the short document titled the “Energy Independence” executive order, directing the agency to withdraw and rewrite the Clean Power Plan, centerpiece of the Obama package to address global warming.
Affected specifically are a short-term ban on new coal mining on public lands. Also affected were rules meant to recalculate the “social cost of carbon,” a rule that would require federal agencies to review the impact on climate change with analyzing future environmental permits. The Post said federal officials will return to the traditional cost-benefit analysis outlined in 2003 by the office of Budget and Management, which appears to put the cost associated with carbon emissions at zero.
Returning jobs to coal mining was a constant refrain during the election campaign. There are about 65,000 coal miners in the country, a figure that has been dwindling for decades, while those employed by renewable industries are almost 10 times as large.
Not addressed was U.S. participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement that committed all countries to reduce pollution that addresses climate, another specific Trump target throughout the campaign.
The Washington Post said that accelerating fossil-fuel production on federal lands and sidelining climate considerations could lead to higher emissions of the greenhouse gases driving climate change and complicate a global effort to curb the world’s carbon output. But Mr. Trump has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is underway and emphasized that he is determined to deliver for the voters in coal country who helped him win the Oval Office. The President thanked the miners onstage twice during the ceremony, and as they gathered around him when he signed the executive order, he looked up and remarked, “You know what it says, right? You’re going back to work.”
The New York Times cited experts who said the Trump program will all but ensure that the United States cannot meet its clean air commitments under the accord. Instead, Mr. Trump said his approach will decrease the nation’s dependence on imported fuels and revive the flagging coal industry. It clearly also will be signaling other countries that they, too, can flout the agreement.
One industry expert noted that we do not import coal, so this has little to do with energy independence. Another said that some older coal plant that had been marked for closing may stay open a few years long.
On jobs, mines, like other industries, increasingly are using automation and mechanization. “So even if we saw an increase in coal production, we could see a decrease in coal jobs,” one coal industry source told The Times.
Legal issues are pending as well because the Supreme Court had temporarily frozen some of the regulations involved.
The EPA will be legally required to produce a new outline to replace the Clean Power Plan and to replace various rules that could take up to a year. Of course, as many as 18 state attorneys general and environmental advocacy groups will attack the change in court. Within moments of the signing, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said the state will enforce stricter laws in any case, setting up a court battle to come. Oregon and Washington State followed, along with a group of Southeast states.
Opening up more federal lands and waters to fossil fuel extraction might lead to a glut of coal in the market, possibly making it less financially viable.
Once again, this is governance by executive order. There is no legislation, there is no debate, there is no discussion. Next stop: the courtroom.